Senate rebuffs Bush proposal for arctic refuge oil drilling


The Oregonian

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Senate Wednesday voted narrowly against drilling for oil in the Alaska wildlife refuge, dealing a crippling blow to the central element of the Bush administration's energy plan.

The 52-48 vote came after the hardest-fought lobbying campaign yet in the congressional session, setting environmental groups, which said that oil production would destroy a pristine wilderness, against Alaska business interests, which said that oil was necessary for jobs and energy independence.

Until the final moments, neither side was certain of victory, and the decision came down to two Republican senators -- Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Gordon Smith of Oregon -- who opposed drilling.

Smith told The Oregonian last week that he would side with drilling opponents -- and did so Wednesday despite an onslaught of high-level arm twisting by the White House and other Republicans.

In the 24 hours preceding Wednesday's vote, Smith got calls on the arctic issue from Vice President Dick Cheney and White House chief of staff Andrew Card. Interior Secretary Gale Norton stopped by his office for a chat, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., phoned him twice and Alaska's two senators piled on in between.

Smith said he's never been lobbied harder on any vote.

"This was Waterloo, and I'm still standing," he said. "I believe my vote reflects the views of a majority of Oregonians. And while I'm often in harmony with my party, in representing Oregon, occasionally I take a different way."

Smith himself raised the profile of the issue last year by running campaign ads that highlighted his opposition to the White House position on drilling. Last week, anti-drilling groups ran newspaper ads last week urging him not to budge.

Smith has not ruled out oil exploration in the refuge at some point, but he has said now is not the time to drill. Patrick Shannon, West Coast organizer for the Alaska Coalition, a collection of preservation groups, praised Smith, saying he "stood up to tremendous pressure from the Bush administration and from colleagues."

The two days of debate that preceded the vote were unusually passionate and acrimonious, filled with battling statistics about the amount of oil under the frozen tundra and sarcastic asides about whether caribou were more important than U.S. jobs.

The chief proponent of drilling, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, ended his remarks on the floor with an unusual but unmistakable threat to use his power as Appropriations Committee chairman against those who disagreed with him.

"People who vote against this today are voting against me," he said. "I will not forget it."

Even though Stevens has the ability to kill any senator's pet project, the threat did not seem to change any votes on what national environmental groups have called a core issue of commitment to their preservation goals.

Wednesday's vote, which stripped the drilling provision from the Senate's annual budget resolution, did not completely kill the possibility of approving drilling this year, but it made it much more difficult.

Had the measure been included in the resolution, opponents would not have been able to filibuster it, because of the Senate's budget procedures. After Wednesday's vote, opponents will be able to filibuster future attempts, which will require drilling supporters to come up with 60 votes.

Stevens nonetheless vowed to bring up the measure repeatedly. "It's never decided until we win," he said, calling the vote the most important to him in his 32 years in the Senate.

Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the House majority leader, said that his chamber would probably approve drilling next month as part of an energy bill, which could force another vote in the Senate.

The House could also approve drilling in its budget plan. If so, Republicans on a conference committee will have to decide whether bringing the issue back to the Senate risks having the entire budget voted down by Wednesday's coalition.

Alaskans pushing hard Alaska's government, along with its oil and labor interests, has long sought permission to begin drilling within the 1.5-million-acre northern coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which was created in 1960.

The area is 65 miles east of Prudhoe Bay, North America's largest oil field, and proponents argue that it contains enough oil to constitute half of all domestic oil production in five years.

Bush administration officials had hoped that Republican control of Congress would finally shatter the power of the environmental lobby, and had used the rising price of gasoline and the imminent war with Iraq as arguments for increased domestic oil production.

But opinion polls showed that most people still oppose drilling in the remote area, and opponents capitalized on that sentiment in the Senate by showing photographs of frolicking polar bears, sumptuous wildflowers and calving caribou, all of which they said would be irreparably damaged by the search for a small amount of oil.

"Do we value this land and are we prepared to protect it, or are we going to desecrate it, diminish it, change it forever for a small amount of oil?" asked Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., a presidential candidate who appeared at several rallies with environmental groups.

Another candidate, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., argued that the nation could save more oil through conservation and renewable energy sources than the refuge would produce.

But the colorful wildlife photographs were ridiculed by supporters of drilling, who said the area is little more than a barren, frozen wasteland most of the year. Alaska's two senators, in particular, expressed fury that their state was considered an untouchable environmental paradise by people in the lower 48 states who want Alaskans to carry their suitcases when they visit.

"We in Alaska are starting to feel cut off from the rest of the world," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican. "The rest of the country would just as soon lock us up and say nothing, nada, zip, you cannot do anything. You are not responsible enough to carry on development because we are concerned about the environment."

The New York Times and Tom Detzel of The Oregonian staff contributed to this report


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