Alaska Refuge wins reprieve as oil drilling plan dropped

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The Independent US

Plans to drill for oil in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge have been knocked off course after the measure was forced out of a crucial budget bill on Capitol Hill. A plan that would have allowed individual states to lift a ban on drilling for oil on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts was also dropped.

How long the reprieve for the Arctic Refuge will last is unclear. The plan to drill in the refuge remains a vital part of the energy policy of the Bush administration, which claims oil reserves there will safeguard US access to energy, reduce reliance on foreign suppliers and help keep fuel prices down. "We continue to urge passage of that initiative," the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said.

The move by a group of Republican moderates in the House of Representatives on Wednesday to drop the measure from a broader bill cutting $54bn from federal benefit programmes means the matter will be thrashed out when representatives of the House and the Senate meet to reconcile their separate budgets.

The Senate included the Arctic drilling plan in its own budget Bill last week, and Republican leaders are likely to push hard for the final House-Senate version of the bill to include it.

The decision on the refuge is undoubtedly a setback for those who have been pressing to open the remote area for drilling. Opponents say they believe the plan could yet be derailed when representatives from the House and Senate meet for their negotiations in the so-called Conference Committee.

Elliott Negin, a spokes-man for the National Resources Defence Council, said drilling in the refuge was bad for a host of reasons. He said that increasing the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks to an average of 40mpg over the next 15 years - something for which he said the technology was available - would save more "10 times" the amount available from this plan.

The group's website adds: "Arctic Refuge oil is not the answer to our energy problems. The solution will be found in American ingenuity, not more oil. Only by reducing our reliance on oil - both foreign and domestic, and investing in cleaner, renewable energy will the United States achieve true national security."

Among the most enthusiastic supporters of the drilling plan is the Alaska senator Ted Stevens, who will be among the members of the Conference Committee. He said: "Actions such as even preventing the exploration of the Arctic [Refuge] is an ostrich-like approach that ill serves our nation in this time of energy crisis."