House OKs Arctic Drilling, 225-201, but Senate Filibuster Awaits

The House yesterday sent a stand-alone Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling bill to the Senate, where it faces certain death because of a Democratic filibuster.

On a 225-201 count, House members once again backed an effort to open the Alaskan refuge, marking the third straight Congress the House has stood behind ANWR drilling with multiple votes in favor of development.

Twenty-seven Democrats joined 198 Republicans in approving language that would authorize oil and gas leasing on a 1.5 million acre area of ANWR's coastal plain. Developing the refuge is a key energy policy goal of congressional Republicans and the White House.

With Senate votes for a stand-alone ANWR bill lacking, critics say yesterday's action was an opportunity for GOP lawmakers to bring a successful energy policy vote home for the Memorial Day recess. "This is all about the elections. They want to say they are doing something meaningful," said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) on the House floor yesterday.

Yet some GOP lawmakers this week said chances of reaching 60 votes in the Senate -- the level needed to break a filibuster -- may have increased amid high oil and gasoline prices. "We have a different climate today than when ANWR was last brought up in the Senate," said Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), a member of the House GOP leadership team, at a press conference Wednesday.

The legislation approved yesterday allows drilling in an area thought to contain 10.4 billion barrels of recoverable oil, according to the mean U.S. Geological Survey estimate. The area is projected to eventually provide around 1 million barrels per day. Production would begin about a decade after leasing is authorized and peak in roughly another decade, according to Energy Information Administration projections.

Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), the measure's sponsor, yesterday said the United States needs to more aggressively develop both traditional and alternative energies. "We need a policy that increases domestic production of energy. Right now we do not have that policy," he said.

But opponents said the Republican-driven energy strategy is too reliant on traditional fuels. "It is like a broken record. The majority is trying to drill our way to energy independence," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.).

ANWR leasing supporters say modern exploration and production technology allows environmentally sensitive development. The bill would limit the space taken up by production and support facilities to 2,000 acres. Opponents say drilling would forever ruin pristine habitat and instead call for other steps, such as major increases in vehicle fuel efficiency.

"This Congress has not voted on a single conservation measure since gasoline hit $3 per gallon," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), an advocate of significantly higher vehicle efficiency standards. Also, opponents of drilling say the 2,000 acre limit on production and support facilities is misleading and would dangerously fragment the fragile ecosystem.

The Bush administration's official "statement of administration policy" on the ANWR bill yesterday said "exploring for additional crude oil supplies in the United States will take pressure off the price of gasoline and ease the burden on America's families."

But Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) mocked the idea of pushing ANWR development when consumers are paying elevated costs today. "That just shows you how bankrupt the Republican energy strategy is," he said. "The answer from the Republican Party is 'we will help you 10 years from now.'"

In the Senate, a slim majority of lawmakers support ANWR drilling. Lacking 60 Senate votes, the preferred strategy for drilling supporters is to attach ANWR provisions to budget bills immune from Senate filibuster. But those efforts faltered last year in the House amid opposition by anti-drilling GOP moderates who joined Democrats united against GOP fiscal policy. The budget strategy also appears unlikely to succeed this year.

The House-passed budget resolution does not address the issue, while the Senate's does. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) this week said a final House-Senate deal on a fiscal year 2007 budget are "slim."

Democrats raise "royalty relief"

Before voting for final passage, members turned back a "motion to recommit" aimed at forcing renegotiation of Gulf of Mexico deepwater leases that allow royalty-free production regardless of how high energy prices climb. The motion failed on a 201-223 vote.

Leases written in 1998 and 1999 do not contain "price threshold" language that allows the Interior Department to end incentives called royalty relief when prices reach certain levels. The motion by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) would have prevented companies from ANWR leases if they have Gulf Coast leases that do not contain price thresholds.

Pombo opposed the effort, saying he shares concerns about the leases without the thresholds -- which the Interior Department has said was an inadvertent omission -- but added it is an unrelated issue. He called it a "cynical attempt to try and kill the bill."

But Markey said it was an appropriate measure. "Either they renegotiate ... or they will not get the benefit of drilling on public land, especially if it is a wildlife refuge," he said. Royalty relief for Gulf Coast producers stems from 1995 legislation aimed at spurring higher-cost deepwater projects at a time when energy prices were much lower.

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