WASHINGTON - For supporters of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, electing George W. Bush as president may have been the easy part. Now the hard work begins.
Bush campaigned partly on the issue of opening the refuge's coastal plain to development and highlighted the need for Arctic oil during his debates with Vice President Al Gore. Gore opposed ANWR drilling, siding with environmental groups that believe the area should remain off limits to drilling.
The fate of the 1.5-million-acre slice of tundra just east of Prudhoe Bay has been in the hands of Congress since enactment of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980. The coastal plain is estimated to contain from 5.7 billion to 16 billion barrels of oil.
The oil industry believes ANWR is the best single prospect for discovering large quantities of petroleum in North America. Environmental groups want the coastal plain designated as wilderness to protect the Porcupine caribou herd and other wildlife.
Several attempts to enact ANWR drilling bills have failed. The Republican-controlled Congress attached an ANWR development provision to a budget bill in the Clinton administration, but the president vetoed it.
John Katz, director of federal-state relations for Gov. Tony Knowles, thinks the stars may be in the proper alignment for opening ANWR in 2001.
"Circumstances are more favorable now than at any time in recent memory," Katz said. "There is a rare confluence of several favorable factors: the focus on a national energy strategy, high energy costs, unstable foreign (oil) sources and a new administration and Congress."
But he added, "this will not be a slam-dunk."
U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who chairs the Senate Committee on Natural Resources, said he plans to move early and forcefully on an energy package that will include ANWR drilling.
"We will focus on new sources of energy, including ANWR, as well as weatherization and conservation programs," he said. "It is a lot better environment than it was."
But with Senate leaders still negotiating the share of power in a chamber split 50-50 along party lines, Murkowski admits he does not know yet how the committee votes will stack up.
He points out that U.S. Sen. William Roth, a Delaware Republican who led the campaign to make the coastal plain a wilderness, was defeated in the November election. But many of the new senators, including Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Maria Cantwell of Washington, have strong environmental leanings.
Murkowski believes Bush "is very much aware and committed" to opening ANWR. The senator has dispatched one of his top aides to serve on the Bush transition team dealing with energy issues.
In the House, U.S. Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican, will give up his chairmanship of the Resources Committee in January. But he will remain the senior GOP member and will press for ANWR drilling.
Environmentalists and the Gwich'in Indians of Interior Alaska and Northwest Canada say oil development would jeopardize wildlife in the coastal plain. The refuge is home to polar and grizzly bears, musk oxen, hundreds of species of migrating birds and thousand of caribou that forage and give birth there. The Gwich'in have, for generations, depended upon the caribou.
Environmental groups are gearing up for another major effort to designate the coastal plain as wilderness, which would bar any future drilling.
Adam Kolton, Arctic campaign director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said, "We expect to make progress. We have enormous bipartisan support for the idea that the area needs to be protected."
In the Congress that adjourned earlier this month, 177 of 435 House members and 28 of 100 senators supported an ANWR wilderness bill.
"President-elect Bush says he wants to develop sound energy policy on a bipartisan basis," Kolton added. "We hope he will do things to bring the country together. This (a development bill) has little chance of becoming law. It is clearly one of the most divisive issues in America."
Jim Waltman, director of Alaska programs at The Wilderness Society, said a declaration of wilderness for the coastal plain is "our No. 1 priority." He expects ANWR development to become an issue early in the new Congress.
"We probably will hear the same tired old rhetoric that drilling the refuge is a magic bullet," Waltman said. "It has failed in the past and I think it will fail again."
Waltman said the 2000 elections provided a "mixed message," with a gain in support for ANWR protection in the Senate at the same time that Bush was elected president.
Katz, of Knowles' office, said it's too early to tell how the new Congress that convenes in January will move on the ANWR issue. But he believes many lawmakers may take a fresh look at the issue with President Bush in the White House.
"One distinguishing difference is that the threat of a veto does not exist. That was discouraging to some members of Congress, who said, 'Why should we stick our necks out.' This fact may change the chemistry in Congress to some extent," Katz said.
A key player may be U.S. Sen. John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat who turned down an offer from Bush to join the Cabinet. Breaux, a strong supporter of ANWR development, chairs a bipartisan group of about 25 senators known as "centrists" and will work to mobilize support for a broad energy package.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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