Senate Rejects Arctic Drilling Proposal

WASHINGTON, DC, April 18, 2002 (ENS) - With a 54-46 vote, the U.S. Senate voted today to reject a proposal to open part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil exploration. Senate Republicans needed 60 votes to break a Democrat led filibuster of an amendment, introduced by Alaska's senators, to the Senate energy bill.

Alaska Senators Frank Murkowski and Ted Stevens, both Republicans, are now expected to withdraw their amendment, clearing the way for the Senate to pass energy legislation within the next week. Unlike the House version of the bill, the Senate version will not include language to allow oil and natural gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

Lieberman Kerry

Democratic Senators Joe Lieberman of Connecticut (left) and John Kerry of Massachusetts led efforts to block passage of the Murkowski-Stevens amendment. (Photo courtesy Office of Senator Lieberman)
"Today's vote is a big victory for America's environment, and we're thrilled that a majority of the Senate stood up to save this spectacular landscape," said Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "The public said they want the Arctic Refuge protected for future generations, and their senators heard them loud and clear."

The Murkowski-Stevens amendment would have opened the coastal plain of ANWR to energy exploration, limiting the acreage that could be developed at any one time to 2,000 acres (809 hectares). The same provision was written into the House energy bill passed last year.

Critics of the proposal said the 2,000 acre limit only accounted for the areas where oil facilities touch the ground - the drilling "footprint" - failed to consider the cumulative effects of the pipelines, roads, drilling pads and waste pits that would have to be built to extract oil from the refuge.

Hoping to garner more votes for the proposal, Senators Murkowski and Stevens offered to include unrelated language providing health coverage to all U.S. steel workers and reserving all ANWR oil for domestic use or export to Israel.

"The plan further renews our commitments to our ally Israel, ensuring that, if needed, American oil can help meet the energy needs of the Middle East's only democracy," Murkowski told the Senate.

Murkowski

Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski tried tacking unrelated measures onto the ANWR amendment to gain supporters. (Photo courtesy Office of the Senator)
But in the end, the concessions were not enough to sway votes to their side.

"This is one of the most important votes cast on the environment this Congress," said John Flicker, president of the National Audubon Society. "Every crisis and excuse imaginable was used as a reason to drill the Arctic Refuge. Common sense prevailed and the summer home of millions of migratory birds will be there for them in the years to come."

The Senate must still consider about 40 proposed amendments to the energy bill before it can pass the legislation, including a host of tax credits and incentives for various segments of the energy industry. And after the bill clears the Senate, a conference committee will have to resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the measure, including whether to approve Arctic drilling.

"It feels great to have won this vote to protect the Arctic Refuge, but the oil industry isn't finished with its attempt to destroy this natural treasure," said the Sierra Club's Pope.

"Drilling the Refuge would do nothing to reduce America's oil dependence," Pope added. "It would, however, forever destroy a pristine national treasure and the wildlife that depend on it."

caribou

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge supports a vast herd of caribou, which in turn helps to support the native Gwich'in tribe (Photo courtesy Arctic National Wildlife Refuge)
ANWR's coastal plain is home to polar bears, wolves and millions of migratory birds. The region is also the birthing grounds for the 129,000 member Porcupine River caribou herd, and is considered sacred land by the Gwich'in Indians, a native people whose traditional lifestyle depends on the caribou.

The Senate vote occurred just hours after 11 percent of BP shareholders voted in favor of a shareholder resolution calling on the London based oil giant to recognize the political and financial risks of drilling in sensitive areas such as the Arctic Refuge.

"It's a big day for America's Arctic," said Athan Manuel, Arctic wilderness campaign director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which sponsored the BP resolution. "The Senate vote and the show of support for the Arctic Refuge from shareholders at BP - the third largest oil company in the world - shows that people around the world support protection for this special place."

"We hope that the Bush administration, BP, and their allies in Congress will stop pushing to allow oil and gas drilling in the Arctic Refuge," Manuel added.