GOP gains improve chance of ANWR drilling

Posted: Friday, November 08, 2002

The GOP's tighter grip on Congress will make it easier for ANWR drilling proponents.

But advocates as well as critics of drilling for oil on the coastal plain of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge say the Republican takeover of the Senate doesn't guarantee such a measure would pass.

Jerry Hood, executive committee member of Arctic Power, the state-funded group that lobbies in favor of drilling, said it's too early to predict what will happen.

"I don't think just because the Republicans are back in control of the Senate that that means any great swings on those types of issues," said Hood, a Teamster leader rumored to be in the running to replace Sen. Frank Murkowski, who will leave the Senate soon to become Alaska's governor. "It's not going to be a cakewalk by any means."

Environmentalists were alarmed GOP gains in the Senate and House could mean President Bush's agenda on natural resource issues could face a friendlier reception. The agenda includes opening ANWR and allowing loggers more timber in national forests to reduce wildfire risk.

"I think it's very, very bad news for the environment of the West," said Debbie Sease, Sierra Club national legislative director. "I think it's going to result in more timber being cut in our national forests. There'll be attempts to weaken the Endangered Species Act."

The House in August approved an energy bill that included drilling in the Arctic refuge, but the Senate, under Democratic leadership, rejected development there. Some geologists estimate as much as 11 billion barrels of oil may lie beneath the refuge.

Drilling in the refuge is a top energy priority of the White House, which argues the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain can be tapped without disrupting wildlife or polluting the environment. Interior Secretary Gale Norton has pledged to "impose the toughest environmental standards ever applied to oil production" if the refuge is opened.

Most Democrats, with some Republican support, have blocked drilling, saying the risk is too high and the potential benefit too low. Development, they say, could disrupt caribou calving areas, the home of musk-oxen, the winter dens of polar bears and the summer stopover for millions of migratory birds.

The Senate will lose one of its main backers of ANWR when Murkowski becomes Alaska's governor. Had he remained in Washington, he would be at the helm of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

However, David Woodruff, Republican spokesman on the Senate Energy Committee, said he thinks the Republican victory Tuesday virtually ensures the panel will approve drilling in the refuge as part of its energy plan.

Pete Rafle of The Wilderness Society cautioned that the battle over Arctic drilling is hardly over.

"Republicans would like to make drilling front and center again," he said. "But the conservation community is preparing to mount a defense of the refuge no less determined than this year. The balance of power in the Senate may have changed, but the basic equation in the energy debate hasn't. We still cannot drill our way to energy independence."

Republican gains also may improve the outlook for Bush's proposal to cut wildfire risk by allowing loggers more access to national forests.

The conflict centers on a disagreement over how much logging should be allowed to remove unnaturally high levels of brush and small trees that have resulted from decades of suppressing fires. In centuries past, small fires periodically cleared forests of such undergrowth.

Groups including the American Lands Alliance, Citizens for Better Forestry and the National Forest Protection Alliance held rallies across the country Thursday to demonstrate against the Bush-backed forest legislation.

"It's a very dangerous time," said Brian Vincent, California organizer for the American Lands Alliance. "There is no doubt a cocky White House and their gloating allies in Congress are going to use their inflated muscle to try to open up public forests to industrial-strength logging."

Republicans want to speed up logging projects, which supporters say routinely get bogged down for years in studies and appeals. A leading GOP proposal would streamline environmental studies, require the government to look at fewer alternatives and limit administrative and judicial appeals.

Some western Democrats agree with the need for forest thinning - and quicker decisions - but differ with Republican proposals they say are too sweeping.

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