by David Stout
The New York Times (Published: March 16, 2005)
WASHINGTON, March 16 - The Senate endorsed oil-drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge today, giving President Bush and others who favor exploration of the Alaska wilderness a major victory.
The 51-to-49 vote was in favor of a budget resolution that assumes revenues of some $5 billion from drilling fees over the next decade, with the federal government and the state of Alaska to split the money.
While this afternoon's vote is not the final word on the issue, it nevertheless made drilling in the wilds of Alaska - an idea favored by the oil industry and fiercely opposed by environmental groups - far more likely than before.
For drilling to take place, the Senate will later have to pass a measure explicitly authorizing the opening of the wildlife refuge to drilling, something that until now has been prohibited. Then the House of Representatives would have to explicitly authorize drilling as well.
But the Senate has long been the biggest obstacle, since opponents have used the chamber's parliamentary devices - notably, the threat of a filibuster, a stalling tactic that requires 60 of the Senate's 100 votes to overcome - to frustrate proponents of drilling.
This afternoon's vote came on an amendment sponsored by Senator Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington. It would have removed language in the budget resolution for 2006 that assumes that drilling will take place.
Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who supports drilling, noted just before the vote that "the price of oil just jumped up to 56 bucks a barrel this morning."
The closeness of this afternoon's vote could be a prelude to bitter debate ahead. President Bush and many Republicans say drilling in the refuge would help make the United States less dependent on foreign sources of oil.
Opponents, who include most Democrats and some Republican moderates, contend that drilling in the refuge would endanger one of the last unspoiled regions of wilderness in North America, and that in the long run it would not be the answer to America's energy problems.
The debate focuses on about 1.5 million acres of coastal plain within the 19-million acre refuge. Oil industry representatives have said that drilling would be confined to only about 2,000 acres within the 1.5 million acres, and that it can be done with a minimum of environmental damage.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
YEAs -- 49
NAYs -- 51