Arctic Drilling Vote Looks Close

Times Staff Writer

Supporters of President Bush's plan to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling are to get a long-sought Senate showdown this week on one of the nation's most contentious environmental issues, but it remains unclear whether they have the votes to win.

"It is clearly a tight vote," said Roger Herrera of Arctic Power, a lobbying organization formed by pro-drilling interests in Alaska.

Foes of oil exploration believe they have the votes -- barely -- to win. Proponents feel the same about their position.

And both sides have stepped up their lobbying, targeting a few senators who could swing the decision.

Drilling advocates range from Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the powerful chairman of the Appropriations Committee, to an Inupiat Eskimo whose community counts on oil royalties to fund schools and other services. On the anti-drilling side, environmentalists have run radio ads in the states of senators they hope to sway, featuring the sounds of wildlife herds being drowned out by noise from drilling equipment.

Pro-drilling forces have sought to frame the issue as vital to national security and economic growth, especially as the prospect of war with Iraq has spotlighted U.S. dependence on foreign oil. During the debate, they are expected to invoke the name of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, from whose country the U.S. buys oil under a U.N. oil-for-food program.

Opponents contend that Arctic drilling barely would make a dent in U.S. reliance on imports, would take years to bring on-line and would damage one of the nation's most precious wildernesses. They suggest the target for congressional action should be gas-gulping sport utility vehicles, not the Arctic refuge.

Last year, the Republican-controlled House approved drilling in the refuge, but the proposal received only 46 votes in a Democratic Senate. Since then, 11 Senate seats have changed hands, and the Republicans now are in control.

A measure that would open the door to drilling has been attached this year to a budget resolution, something that under Senate rules prevents a filibuster. As a result, it could be approved with only 50 votes; Vice President Dick Cheney would break any tie. A budget measure isn't subject to a filibuster, which takes 60 votes to overcome.

Included in the budget legislation is $2 billion the government expects to receive from the oil exploration. Drilling foes, who are mostly Democrats, plan to try to strip out that provision. But even if the measure is approved, another vote would be required this year to authorize the drilling.

Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) objected to attaching drilling to the budget measure, saying the issue has been hotly debated for many reasons, "but never as a way to simply raise money for the Treasury."

Bush administration officials have called the Arctic refuge, in the northeast corner of Alaska, the "single greatest prospect for onshore oil and gas development of any place" in the United States.

Bush has proposed drilling on 1.5 million acres of the 19.6-million-acre refuge; his congressional allies have proposed limiting the production site to 2,000 acres.

The government has estimated that there are 6 billion to 16 billion barrels of oil beneath the tundra. Opponents argue that about 3.2 billion barrels can be recovered economically. The U.S. uses about 7 billion barrels of oil a year.

The possibility of war has complicated the White House's role in the lobbying effort, according to congressional sources.

On the one hand, soaring energy prices have put the spotlight on one of Bush's priorities: increasing domestic production of energy sources. But the administration is waging a low-profile lobbying campaign, sources said, because of uneasiness about playing into arguments that an appetite for oil is driving America toward war.

Claire Buchan, a White House spokeswoman, said members of the Cabinet have been "actively working" with key senators. "Providing the opportunity for environmentally responsible exploration is a high priority for the president, and we expect to continue to work this issue very hard," she said.

Pro- and anti-drilling forces have focused their lobbying on a handful of senators, including Republicans Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Gordon Smith of Oregon and Democrat Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

For now, Coleman is standing firm in his opposition to the drilling. But the senator, who won his seat with Bush's help, also said he is listening to both sides. "Senators are supposed to keep an open mind until you cast a vote," he said.

A spokesman for Pryor said his boss is "not inclined" to vote for the drilling. And Smith told the (Portland) Oregonian last week that he remains opposed.

But neither side is taking any votes for granted.

Alaska Gov. Frank H. Murkowski, a former senator who supports the drilling, has asked his state legislature to provide $1 million to step up lobbying efforts in Washington.

Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, who has been meeting with senators, will be back on Capitol Hill today, along with representatives of the Teamsters, pushing for the drilling.

"Our foreign sources of oil are becoming more and more unstable," she said at a House hearing last week on the drilling proposal. "Our reliance on foreign oil has impacts on the lives of American families, farmers and workers -- as the current gasoline price increase shows."

Opponents contend there are better ways to reduce dependence on foreign oil, such as requiring automakers to toughen the miles per gallon standards for vehicles -- an idea that has been blocked in Congress by a coalition of Democrats from auto-producing states and Republicans wary of more regulation.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), a leading opponent of drilling, has written senators urging them to oppose a "back-door attempt" to open the refuge to drilling.

"The entire community is back in high gear trying to earn back every vote we had against drilling last year," said Sierra Club lobbyist Melinda Pierce.

"We feel good about this vote, but we're taking nothing for granted," added Robert Dewey of Defenders of Wildlife.

Herrera, of Arctic Power, is just as confident. "There is no way I believe we will lose this vote," he said, but he declined to detail his lobbying efforts for fear of aiding the opposition.

"This will be one of the big cliffhangers," said Eric Uslaner, a University of Maryland political scientist. "With soaring gas prices, there will be pressure to do something to boost supply. But with Bush's popularity dropping, the president won't have as much leverage over moderate Republicans."

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