The U.S. Senate energy committee voted Wednesday to advance legislation to open part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
The 13-10 vote, which would lift an existing ban on oil and gas leasing in the refuge, was largely along party lines. Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., voted in favor of the bill, while the rest of the committee's Democrats voted against it.
The legislation, pushed by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, chair of the committee, would require the federal government to establish a program for competitive oil and gas development for the refuge's coastal plain. It requires at least two lease sales in the next seven years.
Alaska's oil industry and politicians have long sought to develop the area, citing its potential to stimulate the state's economy and boost domestic energy production. The coastal plain, which lies along the Arctic Ocean, contains 1.5 million of the refuge's 19 million acres, or about 8 percent.
Alaska is grappling with a multibillion-dollar deficit stemming from a crash in the oil revenues that long covered the majority of state spending. Under the legislation approved Wednesday, it would get half the proceeds from the federal leasing program — a share that the Congressional Budget Office estimates at some $1.1 billion over the next decade.
Environmental groups have fought efforts to develop ANWR's coastal plain, citing its importance for wildlife and as a symbol of the country's commitment to conservation.
The legislation heads now to the Senate Budget Committee.
Senate Republicans, with their 52-member majority in the 100-seat chamber, lack the 60 votes needed to overcome a Democratic filibuster.
But they plan to get around that requirement by attaching the ANWR legislation to a budget bill, which needs only 50 votes to pass.