AD Main Menu

House approves bill opening Arctic refuge to oil drilling

Lisa Demer,Richard Mauer

The U.S. House once again passed a bill to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, voting 237-187 Thursday on a measure expected to die in the Senate.

"This is my 12th time passing ANWR out of the House and although this is a momentous day, there is still work to be done," said U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. He said the Senate should get moving.

The legislation, which contains other controversial drilling and pipeline provisions, faces much bigger obstacles in the Senate and with President Obama, said Alaska's senators, Republican Lisa Murkowski and Democrat Mark Begich.

Still, the senators take solace in the House vote and say it gives them a new opportunity to open ANWR's coastal plain to drilling with twists designed to make the idea palatable to reluctant Democrats.

"I think I've got the votes in the Energy Committee on ANWR," said Murkowski, the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

But that "doesn't get it to the floor," Murkowski said, adding that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid "is bound and determined that he is not going to pass the measure."

It's essential for Alaskans to educate members of Congress on ANWR, especially new ones who haven't yet become entrenched, both Murkowski and Begich said. Long-timers aren't eager to restart the old battle.

"When you say the word 'ANWR,' there are some members who literally get hives," Begich said.

Backers of drilling stress that only a portion of the refuge would be developed -- the bill requires the Interior Department to put up at least 200,000 acres for lease and no less than another 200,000 if there's interest by industry, totally roughly 3 percent of the refuge. And some development could be done with extended horizontal drilling from state lands, a proposal in a different bill sponsored by Murkowski and co-sponsored by Begich.

The House bill, H.R. 3408, passed with 21 Democrats supporting it and 21 Republicans opposed. Republicans touted it as a way to use lease revenues to pay for the expensive transportation bill expected to come to the floor of the House next week.

In addition to ANWR drilling, the bill would also open offshore drilling in the Atlantic and Pacific and force the approval of TransCanada's controversial Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas. All those provisions have strong opposition among the Democrats who control the Senate.

The 1.5-million-acre coastal plain of the refuge, believed to contain massive reserves of oil, has been off limits to development since the compromise that led to the 1980 passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. From that day, Alaskans of both parties have been trying to open the plain and environmentalists and their allies have been trying to get permanent protection for it as designated wilderness.

Neither side has succeeded, so the coastal plain remains in a legislative limbo, neither opened nor locked.

The latest effort emerged as a House energy strategy filled with Republican talking points: cheaper energy, more revenue. Democrats countered with: unbridled development, environmental risks.

Begich said he plans to analyze the House votes, especially those of the Republicans who voted "no" and the Democrats who voted "yes." The offshore drilling aspect, unpopular in Florida's coastal communities, may have led its representatives to vote "no."

But Democrats might be turned around if revenues from drilling benefited their communities or favorite projects. Both Begich and Murkowski said federal revenue from ANWR oil production could go toward renewable energy development such as wind and solar power. And maybe the states' shares -- half the government take for ANWR, 37.5 percent for offshore projects -- could be split among the effected states, local governments and tribes, which could create a bigger pool of potential supporters, Begich said.

With the ANWR vote looming this week, a group of five Alaska state legislators including House Speaker Mike Chenault traveled to Washington to drum up support. Between them, the legislators had 30 meetings in three days but weren't able to meet directly with many U.S. representatives or senators. Chenault said they met with Alaska's three-member delegation and at least two other House members, but also a number of legislative directors and chiefs of staff.

"I wish I could tell you that the 30 meetings that we had were all successful, and that's why the vote was 237 to 187," Chenault said. "I'm not brash enough to say we caused that, that we fixed it. But we gave a lot of good information to congressmen and their staffs and at least now they can make an informed decision vs. a decision based on what they hear from some other area of the U.S."

Legislators were advised by Arctic Power, the Legislature's pro-ANWR lobbyist, not to say who they were trying to sway because that only creates a target for the other side, Chenault said.

Some of the names slipped out last week, and one, Democratic Rep. Larry Kissell of North Carolina, voted for the energy measure, including the proposal to open ANWR, according to the vote tally.

No matter what, Young deserves credit for getting a measure to open ANWR through the House 12 times now, Murkowski said.

As for President Obama, Murkowski said, "timing is everything." Troubles in other oil-producing nations such as Nigeria may lead him to change his opposition to drilling in the Arctic refuge, she said.

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 257-4345.


By LISA DEMER and RICHARD MAUER
Anchorage Daily News