Arctic-oil advocates seize on Mideast crisis

This week's Senate debate over drilling in Alaska will focus on energy independence.

Tensions in the Mideast are infusing the debate on energy legislation in the Senate, especially its most controversial proposal: drilling in the Alaskan wilderness.

Before conflict flared up between Israel and the Palestinians, the debate over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) was shaping up into a contest between the claims of oil drillers vs. porcupine caribou, and all indications were that the caribou were poised to win the war on the Senate floor.

Democrats threatened to use Senate procedures to keep ANWR out of the final bill, and Republican supporters admitted to being well short of the 60 votes needed to stop them.

But new threats of cutoffs in Arab oil – most recently from Iraq on Monday – are giving a higher profile to proposals to develop alternative sources of domestic energy. And Senate Republicans say that they can use that to their advantage, as voting on the most comprehensive energy plan in a generation resumes in the Senate today.

"As the Mideast continues to spin out of control, folks are taking another look at the Middle East and our dependence on it," says Dave Woodruff, a spokesman for Republicans on the Senate Energy Committee.

Democrats who oppose ANWR oil exploration dub efforts to link drilling and Mideast turmoil "shameful." "In the last year, they've tried every excuse under the sun to destroy this pristine wilderness – California's energy crisis, a sagging economy, the war on terrorism – and those excuses have failed because US senators know the difference between real energy policy, and a land grab by the oil industry," says Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, a leading ANWR opponent.

The pro-Israel lobby

In recent days, Republicans began mounting a last-minute push for ANWAR that focuses on the threat from the Mideast. And they are enlisting leading Jewish or pro-Israeli groups – many of whom have never taken a stand on environmental politics – to lobby wavering senators on behalf of ANWR.

"Back in the late 1970s when there was a debate over the building of the Alaska pipeline, we were one of the few Jewish groups that supported exploration and development on the theory that reducing American dependence on Arab oil was good for America and good for the US-Israel relationship. Now, many more are seeing this connection," says Nathan Diament, a spokesman for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.

Other groups that are now urging senators to move on comprehensive energy legislation include the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, B'nai B'rith International, and Americans for a Safe Israel. ZOA President Morton Klein, who was phoning wavering senators this weekend, says he expects a few more to switch sides on this issue, "as the dangers of dependence on Arab oil become more conspicuous."

"Generally, Jewish groups have been very liberal on environmental issues. But I think that now Jewish organizations understand that energy independence is such an important issue that it's even more important than the environment," he adds.

Arctic oil relief – too late?

Ironically, even ANWR supporters concede that little in the energy bill will be on line soon enough to solve disruptions from any new price spike or embargo. New oil from the Arctic couldn't be in gas pumps for at least 10 years, and that assumes that oil prices stay high enough to ensure that new drilling is profitable.

"Whenever there is a crisis in the Middle East, and it looks like there is a potential for a serious supply disruption, that gets people's attention. People want to be on the side of taking some action, even if the action won't produce any results for five or 10 years," says Pietro Nivola, an energy expert at the Brookings Institution.

The effort to craft a new energy strategy has provoked bitter controversy between the parties The House version, which passed last August, includes nearly $33.5 billion in tax incentives, mainly for producers. Senate Democrats propose $16 billion in tax breaks aimed at conservation as well as increasing production.

Alternative energy proposal

For many Democrats, the key proposal in the Senate version of the energy plan was a bid to require automakers to raise the average fuel economy of their cars and trucks, which was defeated in a March 13 vote after strong opposition from most Republicans and Democrats from auto states. Supporters claim that new CAFE standards would have saved more than 1 million barrels a day of oil that the US imports from the Persian Gulf.

"Drilling proponents weren't interested in national security or strengthening America's position in the troubled Middle East when they stopped John McCain and I from making our cars more efficient," says Senator Kerry.

Still, timing is everything in energy politics. "If there's a measurable increase in concern about the reliability of our energy sources, there could yet be a pro-producer bill that comes out of the Congress," says Diemer True, chairman of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

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