Bush administration puts new importance on Arctic oil plans

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The Independent US

In search of a legislative victory before Congress' summer recess, the Bush administration is stepping up its campaign for House approval of an energy bill that would include oil drilling in an Arctic wildlife refuge in Alaska.

Neither side was ready to claim sufficient support to prevail on the refuge issue, the focus of intense lobbying on Capitol Hill by environmentalists, labour unions and the White House. It was expected to come up for a vote sometime Wednesday.

President Bush said development of the reserve's oil ­ put off­limits by President Dwight D. Eisenhower 31 years ago ­ is vital to meet the country's energy needs. He told reporters Tuesday he is convinced drilling could be accomplished "in an environmentally friendly way."

Protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska has been a top priority of environmentalists for years. At the same time, oil companies have coveted the estimated 5 billion to 16 billion barrels of petroleum believed beneath the refuge's 1.5­million­acre (600,000­hectare) coastal plain.

The energy legislation nearing a House vote contains a provision that would lift prohibitions on drilling in the refuge. Opponents of drilling will try to strip the language from the bill.

A few months ago, many environmentalists believed the votes in Congress were solidly against drilling in ANWR, as the refuge is called. But pressure from the White House and House Republican leaders and intense lobbying by several labour unions, spearheaded by the Teamsters, has turned the fight into a toss-up.

"It's touch and go," said Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, who favors opening the refuge to oil development.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York, among a group of Republican moderates who oppose drilling, refused to speculate which side would win. He acknowledged "it's become a little more dicey" with the intense lobbying.

While unions are divided on drilling, the Teamsters, as well as the maritime and construction trade, have targeted wavering Democrats and moderate Republicans, arguing that the issue is as much about jobs as it is about energy and the environment ­ and that the drilling should be allowed.

Rep. Jack Quinn of New York, a moderate Republican with strong support from labour, is among swing voters who have felt the heat.

"I'm caught between two rocks and a hard place," he said in an interview. "I've got the environmentalists, the unions, and I've got the administration. It's just a tough vote."

As of late Tuesday, Quinn has not decided which way to go.

On Tuesday, the White House dispatched labour Secretary Elaine Chao to Capitol Hill to promote drilling in the refuge with a promise of jobs. The Teamsters have claimed that developing the Alaskan refuge would generate 735,000 jobs nationwide.

Environmentalists dispute that claim with the observation the number comes from a 1990 study, done at the request of the American Petroleum Institute, which assumed that oil would sell for $48 a barrel, and refuge oil would dramatically force down oil prices to generate economic growth.

"These numbers are from a flawed study done a decade ago," said Adam Kolton of the Alaska Wilderness League.

Environmentalists ­ from the Sierra Club to the League of Conservation Voters ­ have countered with intense lobbying against drilling. They point out that several unions have long favored continued protection of the refuge.

"We're about to have the most important environmental vote of the 107th Congress," Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said Tuesday at a rally outside the Capitol. Environmentalists displayed what they said were 400,000 postcards against ANWR drilling.