WASHINGTON — Republican senators may abandon a vote in the Senate on oil drilling in an Arctic wildlife refuge, believing they would fall well short of the votes needed to overcome a Democratic filibuster, congressional and administration officials said Monday.
Some senators believe they may have better success in getting the measure approved in negotiations later with the House, which already has voted for development of the refuge, these Republicans said. And a poor showing in the Senate could hurt those chances.
Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, made clear through a spokesman that he still intends to press the case in the Senate and is preparing an amendment to the energy bill that would open the refuge to oil development.
Democrats have pledged to block the proposal and Republicans have come nowhere close to the 60 votes needed to overcome a Democratic filibuster. Some GOP senators are worried that they might not get even a majority.
If that’s the case, according to several congressional sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, Republicans feel it may be better to make a stand when the Senate and House Energy bills are blended in a conference of both chambers. The House bill, approved last summer, already includes oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, also known as ANWR.
There are at least six Republicans who have gone on record opposing drilling in the refuge. So far only four Democrats have publicly said they favor oil and gas development there.
According to government geologists, the 1.5 million acres of the refuge’s coastal plain may contain more than 11.6 billion barrels of oil in dozens of fields. That would be nearly as much as has been taken from the Prudhoe Bay oil field just to the west of the refuge.
But to try to get wider support, some Republican senators have begun toying with the idea of scaling back lease sales to only the northwestern third of the coastal plain, where geologists believe 80 percent of the oil may be located.
Drilling opponents, including Democratic Sens. Joseph Lieberman and John Kerry, in the past have said such scaled back development still threatens the refuge and would be strongly opposed.
On Monday, the Interior Department produced a biological analysis that concluded that if oil development were limited to the northwestern one-third of the 1.5 million acre coastal plain, there would be minimal impact on the calving activities of Porcupine caribou — one of the issues most concerning to environmentalists.
The new analysis was ordered after a government study, examining 12 years of research, concluded that caribou and other wildlife on the coastal plain were at risk and might be adversely affected by oil development.
While the Bush administration still is urging oil lease sales in the entire 1.5 million acre plain, a senior Interior official suggested the new analysis would bolster the case for scaling back.
A spokesman for Lieberman, Andy Kovacevich, said the senator questions the latest study’s conclusion that scaled-back development would protect the caribou. He said while the limitations would avoid serious impact in calving areas, the study did not take into account the fact the caribou usually migrate into the northwestern third of the coastal plain after giving birth.
The Bush administration, meanwhile, pointed to Iraq’s announcement it would suspend oil exports for 30 days as evidence that the Arctic refuge should be opened to oil drilling.
The Iraqi action “should remind us again of how our economy and national security are vulnerable to decisions made by countries abroad,” said Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.
Environmentalists have rejected the energy security argument, noting that no oil would flow from ANWR for 10 years. A recent Energy Department study suggested even then it would reduce imports only slightly.
On the Net:
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: http://www.r7.fws.gov/nwr/arctic/arctic.html
Arctic Power: http://www.anwr.org/
Alaska Wilderness League: http://www.alaskawild.org/