Senate forces removal of defense bill provision that would have allowed drilling in Alaskan northeast.

An Alaskan mountain range

Senate democrats gave environmental activists an early Christmas present Wednesday, forcing the removal of a provision to permit oil drilling in Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

Democrat-led filibusters killed the pro-drilling measure attached to a $453 billion defense-spending bill by Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). Unable to obtain sufficient votes to end the ANWR debate, Republicans dropped the drilling provision. The appropriations bill—which allocated money for, among other things, Hurricane Katrina victims and military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq—ultimately passed.
Senators from both sides were critical of the manner in which advocates for opening ANWR to drilling tied the plan to military funding.

“It’s very frustrating to have an issue as important as ANWR slipped into a bill that is vital to our national security,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told the Portland Press Herald. “That is just an abuse of the legislative process.”

Democratic leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada), agreed with Collins about the Republicans’ tactics.  “Our military is being held hostage by this issue, Arctic drilling,” he told the Associated Press.

Despite holding a 55-person majority in the Senate—there are 44 Democrats and one independent—Republicans failed to obtain the 60 votes required to end debate on the bill.  After the ANWR proposal was removed, the final vote was 56-44.

Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) told the AP that Republicans “tried to play a game of chicken, and they lost the game of chicken.”

Environmentalists are happy that the Senate didn’t buckle to the pressure to finish this Congressional session and adjourn for the holidays.

“Drilling proponents pulled out all the stops, and tried every trick in their playbook,” Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said to Reuters. “This is a tremendous victory for all Americans and proof that the fate of the Arctic refuge must be debated on its merits, not as part of a sneak attack.”

The ANWR—19.6 million acres of pristine wilderness in northeastern Alaska—is home to 45 types of land and marine mammals, including polar bears, bowhead whales and a Porcupine caribou herd that uses the coastal plain for a nursery each summer. 

Drilling in the ANWR may yield up to 10 billion barrels of oil. Supporters suggest that failure to exploit this resource ignores the costs—financial and political—of America’s dependence on foreign oil.

“The failure to act means more American jobs will move overseas,” John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, told Reuters.

However, 10 billion barrels of domestically-produced oil would not, by any means, eliminate America’s continuing need for foreign oil. Putting in the numbers in perspective, David Houseknecht, a US Geological Survey geologist, told the Associated Press, “What is reasonable to say is that [the Alaska refuge] could represent between 5 and 10% of our national production for a period of 20 to 30 years.”

Originally published December 23, 2005

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