Debate Over ANWR Begins Again

The U.S. House of Representatives will begin the debate over drilling in the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge again on Thursday. An expansive energy bill that contains billions of dollars in tax incentives for U.S. coal, natural gas, nuclear, alternative energy, and conservation also includes a proposal from the Bush administration to let oil companies drill in the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge.

The House is scheduled to vote on the bill on Thursday evening, after considering 22 amendments lawmakers will offer.

"The war in Iraq has once again highlighted the importance of ensuring America's energy independence. This bill is designed to do that in an environmentally and responsible way," said Republican Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington.

Iraq was the seventh biggest foreign oil supplier to the U.S. market last year, shipping 440,000 barrels a day. The Bush administration says the ANWR's potential 16 billion barrels of crude oil is too important to the U.S. economy to remain in the ground. New drilling technology would allow oil companies to explore the refuge and leave a small environmental "footprint" on the land, according to advocates. The United States consumes about 20 million barrels of crude oil and refined petroleum products a day, with about 60 percent of those supplies imported.

Most Democrats and environmental groups oppose drilling in the refuge. They argue there is not enough oil in the wilderness area to justify harming the fragile habitat of polar bears, caribou, wolves and other wildlife. Opponents also say it would take a decade before production from the ANWR would reach peak levels, doing little to reduce today's oil imports and high energy prices.

Democratic Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and fellow Republican Nancy Johnson of Connecticut plan to offer an amendment to strip the ANWR drilling language from the bill.

The Senate Energy Committee continued on Thursday writing its energy bill -- which does not include language to allow drilling in the ANWR. The Senate voted last month to keep the refuge closed to oil exploration.

In its work on Thursday, the Senate panel approved billions in federal loan guarantees for utilities to build six new nuclear power plants that would produce up to 8,400 megawatts of electricity -- enough to power over eight million homes.

The panel is expected to finish its work at the end of April, then send the bill to the full Senate for a May vote. Differences in the Senate and House energy bills would eventually have to be reconciled in final legislation that would be acceptable to both chambers before it could be sent to President George W. Bush for his signature.