House Approves Arctic Refuge Drilling

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, August 2, 2001 (ENS) - The U.S. House of Representatives passed an omnibus energy bill early this morning that would authorize opening a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and natural gas exploration. The controversial legislation would also promote so called clean coal technology, and provide tax breaks for the nuclear power industry.


Ninety-five percent of Alaska's North Slope, which contains the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, is already open to energy exploration. The House bill would open the remaining five percent (Two photos courtesy Arctic National Wildlife Refuge)
After almost 12 hours of debate, the House voted 240 to 189 to pass the legislation (HR 4), combining four separate energy measures into a sweeping bill that includes many of the proposals included in President George W. Bush's national energy plan unveiled in May.

"Tonight's House passage of comprehensive, balanced energy legislation is a tribute to President Bush's leadership and a tremendous victory for America, for the economy, and for the environment," said Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. "Congressional action on the President's National Energy plan, just a few months after its unveiling, is an important step toward meeting our long term energy needs and reducing our dependence on foreign sources of energy."

However, the bill is likely to face strong opposition in the Democratically controlled Senate, which has already expressed its intention to reject efforts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling.

"While we are profoundly disappointed that the House turned its back on the pristine Arctic Refuge and the will of the American people, we are optimistic as the fight heads to the Senate," said Carl Pope, executive director of the conservation group Sierra Club. "Drilling in the Arctic Refuge won't address our nation's energy needs or make a dent in gas prices."


The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge supports a vast herd of caribou
Calling the House action "the best vote that big oil's money could buy," Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife called the bill "staggeringly irresponsible," and, "stuffed to the brim with giveaways to wealthy oil and coal companies, and shortsighted rollbacks of rules that protect wildlife and the environment on public lands across this country."

The energy bill would provide $33.5 billion in tax credits and other incentives over the next 10 years, with about 80 percent going to boost domestic energy production and the remainder targeted for energy efficiency, conservation and environmental protections.

Part of those funds would come from expected lease revenues from opening the North Slope of ANWR to energy exploration. An amendment to the bill directed the federal share of new ANWR energy production receipts would go toward two funds: The Renewable Energy Technology Investment Fund and the Royalties Conservation Fund.

"If passed, federal receipts from environmentally safe energy production on a small portion of ANWR will help explore for new energy technologies for our long term energy security and help protect our environment for future generations of American families," said Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

The oil industry would get major boosts from the bill, gaining access to ANWR and other public lands for new exploration, and winning a waiver of all federal royalty payments for oil and natural gas drilling projects in the Gulf of Mexico.


The House declined to order major fuel efficiency increases for vehicles like the Ford Excursion, the largest SUV now on the market (Photo courtesy Ford Motor Co.)
"Big Oil called out their big guns and their big money on this vote," said the Sierra Club's Pope. "Americans want a balanced approach that gives us quicker, cleaner, cheaper and safer solutions, such as energy efficient technologies, renewable power and responsible production."

In an additional defeat for environmentalists, the bill mandates only a small boost in the fuel efficiency of sport utility vehicles (SUVs). Though House Democrats and environmental groups had pressed for an amendment that would have made SUVs and other light trucks abide by the same gas mileage standards as automobiles, the House instead ordered SUV gasoline use to be reduced by just five billion gallons over a six year period.

A recent National Academy of Sciences report concluded that the auto industry could improve the fuel efficiency of SUVs by as much as one third over the next 15 years without raising overall costs for consumers.

The House bill would expand federal support for so called clean coal technologies, which aim to reduce the pollution emitted by coal burning power plants. Through tax incentives and enhanced research and development programs, the bill would guarantee that coal continues to be used by the electricity industry, despite cleaner burning alternatives.

power plant

The energy bill would encourage the continued use of coal to fuel power plants (Photo by Carole Swinehart, courtesy Michigan Sea Extension)
In another boost for the coal industry, the bill would require the Department of the Interior to review all public lands, other than national monuments, parks or wilderness areas, for their potential for coal and renewable energy development.

The nuclear industry would also gain a slew of new tax breaks to extend the operation of existing nuclear power plants. In a nod to supporters of energy conservation, the bill would expand assistance programs that aid low income households in paying for weatherizing their homes, and provide new tax credits for consumers that buy hybrid gasoline electric vehicles, energy efficient appliances, and residential solar panels.

But House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt noted in a speech before the vote that the bill "provides less than 20 percent of tax breaks to renewable energy and energy efficiency."

Calvert Cliffs

Tax incentives would encourage the continued operation of existing nuclear power plants, such as Calvert Cliffs in Maryland, which won approval last year to continue operating until 2034 (Photo courtesy Nuclear Regulatory Commission)
"Over 80 percent of the tax breaks go to oil, gas, coal, nuclear and other big energy special interests who support the House Republican leadership," Gephardt added. "Oil and gas companies making record profits could reap billions of dollars from the Republican energy bill."

Environmental groups vowed to step up their lobbying efforts against the bill, and to publicize the failure of a majority of House members to listen to the nation's desire for a more balanced energy policy.

"The American people deserved more principled, more responsible environmental leadership than they received today from a majority of House members," said Betsy Loyless, political director of the League of Conservation Voters (LCV). "With the exception of a large, bipartisan core group of representatives - like Edward Markey, Nancy Johnson, Jay Inslee, Sherwood Boehlert, Nick Rahall, John Lewis and Christopher Shays -the House failed to truly represent the environmental priorities and values of most Americans."

"The American people deserve better environmental leadership from Congress and LCV will do its part in the 2002 elections to make sure they get it," warned Loyless.