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GOP Renews Drive to Drill in Arctic Wildlife Refuge

Times Staff Writers

As President Bush was out promoting his stalled plan to allow drilling in an Alaskan wildlife refuge, the leader of a Senate committee said Wednesday that he would try a new strategy to navigate the proposal through Congress.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said he would add into a budget bill a measure to allow companies to drill for oil and gas in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Because Senate rules treat the budget measure differently from other legislation, successfully attaching the drilling provision to it means it could pass with support from 51 senators. That would end opponents’ chances to block the drilling measure with a filibuster. A filibuster would force supporters to find 60 votes.

In 2003, Senate Democrats and several Republicans blocked a proposal for drilling in the refuge by a vote of 52 to 48. The GOP has gained four seats in the Senate since then, giving them 55.

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Traveling to Ohio, Bush toured a technology development institute and made his first major speech on energy in his second term, calling on Congress to adopt his energy policy.

“We have had four years of debate about a national energy bill,” Bush said. “Now is the time to get the job done.”

The president called for greater reliance on coal and nuclear power, as well as for greater efforts at conservation and the modernization of the energy infrastructure. He said the U.S. could achieve all of that while remaining a good steward of the environment.

The energy bill before Congress includes a number of politically popular features, such as requiring greater use of ethanol, an alternative fuel made from corn. It also has measures that supporters say would strengthen the nation’s electric grids and prevent fuel shortages and price spikes, such as those that occurred during California’s electricity crisis in 2000 and 2001.

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Bush’s speech comes at a time when gas prices have been rising -- to an average of nearly $2 per gallon nationwide as of Monday, according to Energy Department figures. Retail prices on average are 26 cents higher than at this time last year. Prices in California are nearly $2.23 on average.

The president said that “higher prices at the gas pump and rising home heating bills and the possibility of blackout are legitimate concerns for all Americans. And all these uncertainties about energy supply are a drag on our economy.... To meet America’s energy needs in the 21st century, we need a comprehensive national energy policy.”

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters that Bush remained opposed to tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve as a way to increase supply and cut prices. Some Democrats have called for releasing oil from the reserve, which they say could be replaced after prices decline.

Speaking about plans to drill in the Arctic refuge, Bush said the Department of Energy believed the effort would yield 10 billion barrels from “a small corner” of the reserve -- “just 2,000 acres,” or roughly the size of the airport here in Ohio’s capital. By using innovative techniques, he said, such development would have “almost no impact” on the land or local wildlife.

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He noted that no nuclear power plant had been ordered since the 1970s, and declared: “It’s time to start building again,” adding that decades of experience and advances had proven the reliability and security of nuclear power.

Bush, whose environmental policies have been condemned by groups such as the Sierra Club, renewed his push for energy legislation just as Congress was preparing to take up one of his most controversial initiatives: opening a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration.

“The votes are extremely close,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. He called Gregg’s maneuver to attach the drilling approval to the budget bill an aberration of the budget process.

By contrast, Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, welcomed Gregg’s approach. He told the Budget Committee, of which he is also a member, that “the cleanest energy development in the world” was proceeding in the North Slope, near the Arctic reserve.

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Energy legislation has been one of Bush’s priorities virtually from the day he took office, during the California energy crisis. An energy bill that included measures to promote conservation and production passed the House in 2003, but fell two votes short of overcoming a filibuster in the Senate.

A significant hurdle to passage of an energy bill is a dispute over whether it should limit manufacturers’ liability in lawsuits over the controversial fuel additive MTBE, or methyl tertiary butyl ether.

Senators from states contaminated by the fuel additive -- including California’s Democratic senators and New Hampshire’s Republican senators -- have objected to the provision, complaining it could force their taxpayers to pick up the tab for cleaning up the contamination.

But House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, whose home state of Texas has been a big producer of the fuel additive, has insisted on the liability shield.

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Chen reported from Columbus and Simon from Washington. Times staff writer Joel Havemann in Washington contributed to this report.


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