In a major victory for President Bush's energy policy, the Senate voted Wednesday to open Alaska's wildlife refuge to oil drilling.
The 51-to-49 Senate vote moves the prospect of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) closer to reality after two decades of debate. It comes as oil and gas prices are approaching new highs.
While Wednesday's vote marked a major defeat for environmentalists, it doesn't mean drill bits will be sinking into the Alaska tundra anytime soon. The measure will still have to be approved by the House, which is far from certain. "There's a lot of moving parts in this thing," says Peter Rafle, communications director of The Wilderness Society. "It's far from over."
The fight over ANWR - which may or may not have a significant amount of oil beneath its surface - is one of the longest-running environmental dramas in recent history.
For years, Democrats and a few Republicans in Congress have been able to fend off oil exploration and development there by threatening a filibuster. But now, GOP leaders in the Senate have succeed in attaching it to the 2006 budget resolution as a potential source of revenue. The move sidestepped a filibuster by Democrats which would require 60 votes. The budget resolution required only a 51-vote majority.
The House is still working on its budget resolution for 2006, and the two legislative chambers will have to reconcile whatever differences remain - including oil exploration in Alaska.
From an environmental standpoint, the debate is over whether advanced "directional" drilling methods would allow for a much smaller "footprint" (drill rigs, roads, etc.) impacting wildlife. Advocates say they can do this with minimum damage to the fragile tundra; activists say it's a sham. Meanwhile, oil companies themselves reportedly have lost interest in the project.
So why are President Bush, the Alaska delegation, and others pushing this controversial proposal? Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney - both former oil men - see it as an important part of the effort to reduce US dependence on foreign oil. Unlike politicians in California and Florida, including the President's brother Gov. Jeb Bush, who resist unsightly oil rigs off their coasts, the Alaska congressional delegation is all for drilling in a remote part of their state. If nothing else, ANWR symbolically focuses the broader debate over natural resource extraction in wild areas around the country.
Without more exploration, even the best estimates of oil in ANWR are educated guesses. The US Geological Survey (USGS) figures the amount of "technically recoverable oil" to be between 5.7 billion barrels (95 percent probability) and 16 billion barrels (5 percent probability) with a mean value of 10.4 billion barrels.
"Economically recoverable oil" is the more relevant figure, according to USGS officials, meaning a company would find it financially worth the effort. But that's even harder to determine because it depends on fluctuating oil prices, a yet unknown accumulation size, recovery technology, and proximity to pipelines and other existing infrastructure.
What all of this means, claim drilling opponents, is that ANWR likely contains less than a year's worth of oil - none of it reaching the US market for at least 10 years.
As an officially designated wildlife refuge, ANWR would have been off-limits to drill rigs. But when the 19 million-acre refuge was established in 1980, and in recognition of the potential for oil and gas there, the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain along the Arctic Ocean was left open to leasing and exploration.
Oil there may be, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service says the drillable area "is critically important to the ecological integrity of the whole Arctic Refuge, providing essential habitats for numerous internationally important species."
Most Americans will never see the place or the caribou, polar bears, muskoxen, arctic foxes, wolverines, grizzly bears, snow geese, and other migrating birds that inhabit its tundra just north of the Brooks Range. But for much of the public this "American Serengeti," as environmentalists call it, represents an ideal of natural wildness that must remain pristine.
While the fight in Congress over ANWR may be a close one, public opinion weighs heavily against drilling.
A recent survey conducted jointly by Republican and Democratic pollsters asked simply, "Should oil drilling be allowed in America's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?" The results: 53 percent against, 38 percent in favor. Regarding the current effort to attach ANWR to a budget resolution rather than vote directly on its merits, a whopping 73 percent agreed that drilling there "is too important to the American public and future generations to be snuck through."
More broadly, according to this survey, Americans favor conservation (34 percent) and alternate forms of energy (39 percent) over domestic oil production (18 percent) as "the best way to reduce US dependence on foreign oil."
Meanwhile, industry interest in the politically charged Arctic refuge seems to have waned as well.
"The enthusiasm of government officials about ANWR exceeds that of industry because oil companies are driven by market forces, investing resources in direct proportion to the economic potential, and the evidence so far about ANWR is not promising," oil industry consultant Wayne Kelley told The New York Times recently.