U.S. House approves bill to drill in Alaska


WASHINGTON, Reuters

The U.S. House of Representatives early Thursday morning passed comprehensive energy legislation that adopts the Bush administration’s plan to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Opening part of the Alaskan wilderness is key to the White House’s long-term efforts to boost domestic oil and natural gas supplies, and reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil imports.

The House legislation also includes over US$33 billion in tax breaks for the energy industry, funding to promote “clean coal” technology and renewable fuels, a small increase in mileage requirements for sport utility vehicles and other energy conservation measures.

Lawmakers finally approved the bill 240 to 189 shortly after midnight following more than 14 hours of debate, rejecting amendments to the legislation that would have blocked drilling in the refuge and required SUVs and other light trucks to get the same higher gasoline mileage as passenger cars.

Sixteen Republicans broke with President George W. Bush and voted against the legislation, while the White House won the support of 36 Democrats.

Lobbying by the Teamsters Union, promoting the jobs that would be created from drilling in the refuge, helped win over some Democrats.

The Bush administration’s victory may be short-lived, however, as the Democratic-controlled Senate will take up its energy bill in September that would keep the refuge off limits to drilling and require much stronger vehicle fuel standards.

Lawmakers voted 223 to 206 against an amendment that would have stripped out provisions from the bill giving oil firms access to the Alaskan wilderness. The amendment was offered by Republican Rep. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut and Democrat Edward Markey of Massachusetts.

The White House maintains energy firms could drill for oil and natural gas on about 2,000 acres (810 hectares) of the refuge’s 19 million acres (7.7 million hectares) without harming the environment.

Government estimates have said the refuge could hold up to 16 billion barrels of oil, enough to replace the crude the United States imports from Iraq for 70 years. The U.S. market consumes close to 20 million barrels of petroleum a day and must import about 56 percent of that amount.

“It’s a lot better if we produce it at home than depend on (Iraqi leader) Saddam Hussein,” said Republican Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana.

“Why do we want to drill in ANWR, because that’s where the oil is,” said Republican Joe Barton of Texas, who added the refuge’s crude could help lower gasoline prices at the pump by 5 to 15 cents a gallon.

Opponents to drilling said the refuge’s environment would forever be harmed by the equipment that would be dragged through the pristine wilderness to explore for oil.

“This is intrusive and the scars are permanent,” said Johnson. “You cannot develop this area without tremendous impact on this (refuge’s) ecosystem.”

“This … is no ordinary land, it’s a cathedral of nature,” said Democrat David Bonior of Michigan.

To keep the drilling area under control, lawmakers also voted to limit exploration in the refuge to 2,000 acres. They also voted to use half the federal oil royalties raised from drilling to pay for research on renewable energy sources and to finish the backlog of improvement projects in national parks.

While lawmakers agreed to allow drilling in ANWR to increase domestic oil production, they refused to stretch U.S. petroleum supplies by significantly raising the mileage of gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles.

Lawmakers voted 269 to 160 against an amendment requiring SUVs, minivans and pickups to meet the same higher fuel mileage requirements of passenger cars in six years.

Under the amendment, offered by Markey and Republican Sherwood Boehlert of New York, Detroit would have been forced to improve fuel efficiency of the so-called light trucks from the current 20.7 miles per gallon (mpg) to 27.5 mpg by 2007.

Opponents said the higher fuel requirements would force automakers to build lighter, unsafe vehicles.

The House energy bill already included language requiring the Transportation Department to reduce gasoline use of SUVs and light trucks by 5 billion gallons between 2004 and 2010.

Democrats and environmentalists claim the fuel savings will increase fuel efficiency of light trucks by less than one mpg.

Democrats also criticized the energy bill for containing billions of dollars in tax breaks for big oil companies already enjoying record profits. The tax relief would be paid for by dipping into the Medicare Trust Fund, they said.

Markey said oil firms were “going to build a pipeline into the pockets of the senior citizens of our country.”