US House approves drilling in Arctic refuge

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The US House of Representatives passed and sent to the Senate a broad energy bill early on Thursday that backs oil and gas drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, rejecting claims that its development would devastate "a cathedral of nature" in need of protection.

A proposal to require a boost in fuel efficiency of popular sport utility vehicles was rejected, although its supporters said the move would save as much oil as the Arctic refuge would produce.

The energy package, covering 510 pages, passed 240­189 after 12 hours of debate, marking a major victory for President George W. Bush, who had said development of the Arctic refuge's oil is key to meeting the country's energy needs in years to come.

Protection of the refuge, which was created 41 years ago by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, produced the most spirited debate. But in a 223­206 vote shortly before midnight, the House turned back an attempt to strip the drilling provision from the bill.

Environmentalists had waged an intense lobbying campaign to protect the refuge's 1.5 million­acre coastal plain ­ an area frequented by millions of migrating birds, caribou and other wildlife. It also is where as much as 16 billion barrels of oil may be located, although geologists aren't sure how much is there.

The White House called the bill, which also would provide billions of dollars in tax breaks for energy industries, a proper balance between energy development and conservation.

It's "a tremendous victory for America ... an important step toward meeting our long­term energy needs and reducing our dependance on foreign sources of energy," said Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.

But the House rejected calls for more stringent fuel efficiency requirements for popular sport utility vehicles, minivans and trucks ­ a move viewed by many environmentalists as the single most effective way to curtail energy demand.

Fuel efficiency improvements for motor vehicles would save more oil each year than could be produced in the Arctic refuge, opponents of drilling in the refuge argued.

The Senate has yet to take action on energy legislation, planning to take up the energy proposals in September after the summer recess. Senate Democrats have vowed to block an attempt to open the Arctic refuge to oil companies, although the House vote will give the issue fresh momentum.

In addition to the Arctic drilling, the House bill would provide $33.5 billion in energy tax breaks and credits, most of it to promote coal, oil, nuclear and natural gas development, but also about $6 billion aimed at spurring energy conservation.

It was the first time in 21 years that the House has taken up the Arctic drilling issue. In 1980, Congress declared that the coastal plain within the refuge potentially could be tapped for its oil resources, but not without a green light from Congress.

Proponents argued that with modern technology oil exploration and development can be done without environmental harm to the refuge. No more than 2,000 acres of the 1.5 million acres containing the oil would be disturbed, proponents argued.

The refuge "was supposed to be drilled, explored for the American people," declared Rep. Don Young. He chided some of the drilling opponents, many of whom, he said, had never been to the refuge in the far corner of northeastern Alaska.

"This is no ordinary land," shot back Rep. David Bonior, who said he had been there. "It's a cathedral of nature, an American heritage. And it's our responsibility to protect it."

The question is whether the nation will honor its heritage "or will the big oil companies win," continued Bonior. Oil companies long have coveted the refuge which geologists believe contains between 5 billion and 16 billion barrels of oil, an amount that could be comparable to the Prudhoe oil fields next door.

Democrats said the House bill was tilted too heavily toward energy companies, pointing to more than $33.5 billion in tax benefits over the next decade. They said $8 of every $10 would go to coal, oil, nuclear and other energy industries.

The House debate came days before Congress was to begin its summer recess. The action was the first legislative response to Bush's energy blueprint released in May and to the growing concern in Congress about the nation's energy future.

The bill is "focused on increased conservation, promoting technology, expanding the use of renewables and increasing efficiency, increasing energy exploration and promoting a clean environment," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.

Critics said the bill offered little immediate relief or significant energy savings.

Among the bill's major provisions were:

¿About $27 billion in tax breaks over 10 years for energy development including incentives for coal, gas and oil and nuclear energy development.

¿Nearly $6 billion in conservation incentives including increasing federal research into clean coal technologies.

¿An increase in federal spending to help low­income families pay heating and cooling bills, and make energy efficiency improvements.