Oil and Arctic ice aren't meant to mix, but one cranky senator can't let go of a bad plan to combine the two.
Last week, for the second time in two years, the U.S. Senate defeated, 52 to 48, a proposal to open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration and development. Drilling proponents had thought they could slip the plan through as part of the budget bill, which is not subject to a filibuster and requires only a simple majority vote to pass.
The victory on behalf of one of the nation's most pristine areas is due to courageous votes cast by moderate Republicans in the face of intense lobbying from the White House and its buddies in the oil and gas industry. Americans who care about the environment can thank Republican Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, who joined two Democrats who had been wobbling -- Sens. Mark Pryor and Blanche Lambert Lincoln, both of Arkansas -- in resisting that lobbying. Unfortunately, they may soon face another fight.
Normally, once a vote is taken, the issue is over for the year. But Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) vowed to keep pushing for drilling and threatened revenge against opposing senators' spending bills when they reached the Senate Appropriations Committee, which he heads. "People who vote against [drilling] today," he declared, "are voting against me and I will not forget it."
That is not in the tradition of senatorial courtesy. Besides, he's throwing his weight around in support of a cause that lacks gravity. A White House spokeswoman has lamented that the Senate missed an opportunity to increase the nation's energy independence "at a time when that's critically important." In fact, if drilling were approved and oil found, it could take up to 10 years for the oil to reach gasoline pumps in the United States.
President Bush made the Arctic refuge a keystone of his energy program, even though drilling there has failed to win majority support for 25 years. The petroleum industry itself seems to be lobbying more out of loyalty to Bush than because it sees great riches flowing from the refuge.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who managed the opposition on the Senate floor, correctly said conservation could offset any need for Arctic oil. Congress has a chance to offer a real step toward U.S. oil independence this year by passing a bill requiring a modest increase in mileage standards for light trucks and sport utility vehicles. That would make Stevens' stubborn efforts to despoil his state's most pristine region even more pointless.