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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

The U.S. Senate handed drilling supporters a narrow victory by approving oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The vote was part of a budget resolution that bypassed a potential filibuster. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports from Washington.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For more than two decades, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been the focus of the national fight between the oil industry and conservationists. And, oil just won a big round. On March 16, the U.S. Senate voted to open portions of the refuge to oil exploration as part of the federal budget, a move that avoided the threat of a filibuster. It's a hard-won victory for drilling proponents and a bitter defeat for conservationists who invested millions over the years to keep the drills out. But, as Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports, the Arctic oil dispute is not over yet.

YOUNG: The Arctic Refuge's would-be protectors found themselves over a 56-dollar barrel. That was the eye-popping price for a barrel of crude the day the Senate took up debate on the future of the refuge. And it's why South Dakota Republican Jim Thune says let the drilling begin.

THUNE: How high do gas prices have to get before we realize what the American people have realized a long time ago? And that is that we have an energy crisis here in America today.

YOUNG: Thune is among the five newly-elected Republicans who expanded the majority's margin of power and helped drilling proponents squeeze out a narrow win. The last Senate rejected drilling by four votes; this one approved it, 51 to 49. Kentucky Republican Jim Bunning says the country's growing dependence on foreign oil makes opening the refuge a matter of national security.

BUNNING: We must utilize our own natural resources if we're going to do what's necessary to defend America.

YOUNG: The vote could allow leases in two years for oil exploration in one and a half million of the refuge's 19 million acres. The area in dispute is on the coastal plain and is the last five percent of Alaska's northern coast not open to oil exploration. It's not clear how much oil is there. The best guess is based on seismic testing from the U.S. Geological Survey that indicates the refuge could produce about a million barrels a day, about the same as the output from Texas. The U.S. now uses a little more than 20 million barrels a day. Drilling opponents like Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry say that's not worth risking damage to the refuge's wild landscape and the caribou, bears and migratory birds that depend on it.

KERRY: The fact is the price of oil will not drop, the price of energy will not drop, the price of gasoline will not drop because with three percent of the oil reserves of the world in our hands, including Alaska, you can't drill your way out of America's predicament.

YOUNG: Kerry's numbers come from the government's Energy Information Administration, projecting the country's dependence on foreign oil, 20 years from now.
Without drilling the refuge, the U.S. will get 68 percent of its oil from foreign sources; with drilling in the refuge, 65 percent. Opponents also argue against the way the vote came before the Senate, not as a separate bill or an energy package, but tucked into the budget resolution which cannot be filibustered. That was the only way drilling supporters could win with a simple majority. Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman worries about what's next.

LIEBERMAN: If they can use this end run, this trick, they can use it to do what they want with the Great Lakes or to allow for offshore drilling off the coast of Florida, or to enter other public places throughout our country.

YOUNG: That suspicion was reinforced when House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas summed up the purpose of Arctic drilling in one word: precedent.

NORTON: That is clearly not the case.

YOUNG: Interior Secretary Gail Norton, however, dismisses that idea.

NORTON: The president has supported the moratoria that protect Florida waters. We also know that if you take our most rich potential oil resource off the table, then that does increase pressure for every place else.

YOUNG: Perhaps no one was happier with the Senate's action than Alaska's Senior Senator, Republican Ted Stevens. Stevens has pushed to open the refuge for 24 years and a few days before the vote, that effort was clearly wearing him down.

STEVENS: As I said, I'm really depressed. In fact, I'm seriously, I'm seriously depressed, unfortunately, clinically depressed. I've been told that because I've just been at this too long.

YOUNG: After the vote, Stevens was back to his normal, temperamental self, shouting down a reporter's question and asserting that voters endorsed Arctic drilling last November.

STEVENS: And, my friend, it's called an election. We won the election and we promised we'd do this when we won that election.

YOUNG: If Stevens seems more feisty than celebratory, it could be because he knows he still has a lot of work ahead. Arctic drilling is now tied to the fate of the resolution. And budget resolutions have died twice in the past three years. This year's version is beset with quarrels over Medicaid funding and how to pay for tax cuts. And environmental groups are pinning their last hopes on those budget battles to keep the Arctic Refuge off limits. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Young in Washington.



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