ANWR Rides November Rollercoaster

Published December 1, 2005

Prospects for resource recovery in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), an area rich in oil and natural gas reserves, rode a dramatic rollercoaster during early November.

Resource recovery appeared all but certain on November 3 when the U.S. Senate, long the sole obstacle to resource recovery, voted to allow it. Prospects unexpectedly became dim on November 10, however, when a small group of Republicans joined an overwhelming majority among Democrats to block approval in the U.S. House.

The issue, unresolved at press time, will likely be settled in reconciliation talks between the House and Senate.

The House Resources Committee set the stage for the ANWR debate when it voted 24-16 to begin resource recovery as part of a proposed 2006 budget bill. Approval by the Resources Committee came as no surprise because the House has consistently supported resource recovery in recent years.

Senate Approved Recovery

The November 3 vote in the Senate was viewed at the time as the vote that would ultimately decide the fate of ANWR resource recovery. Although pro-recovery senators have at times held a majority in the Senate, previous votes were always subject to filibuster. Without a 60-vote supermajority necessary to defeat a filibuster, pro-recovery senators had been unable to maneuver the legislation through the Senate.

Budget bills, however, are not subject to filibuster. By including ANWR provisions in proposed budget legislation, pro-recovery legislators appeared to have outmaneuvered the opposition. Those efforts seemed successful on the night of November 3 when the Senate voted 52-47 to support a budget bill including ANWR resource recovery.

“We’re stepping down the road to energy independence,” said Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, who represents Alaska, site of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, quoted in the November 4 Boston Globe.

“The state of Alaska has been waiting a long time to let the United States of America, which they’re part of, share in their abundance of oil, and today we finally have said that it’s time,” added Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, reported FoxNews.

House Leaders Outmaneuvered

But measures that live by political maneuvering can also die that way. Despite majority support for ANWR resource recovery in the House, opponents outmaneuvered the majority and scuttled the provision in the House version of the 2006 budget bill. Although 30 centrist Democrats had joined the majority in a 231-200 vote of support for ANWR resource recovery in an April 2005 energy bill vote, few of those 30 Democrats were expected to support the Republican-crafted House budget bill. That absence of support from Democrats gave a small group of largely East Coast Republicans sufficient power to demand dropping ANWR from the House budget.

Knowing Republican defections would mean defeat for the entire budget bill, House Republican leaders agreed to drop ANWR resource recovery from it.

“Passage by the House of Representatives of a budget bill has been stymied by a small group of liberal Republicans because they oppose the one measure before Congress that can significantly increase America’s energy supplies,” said Myron Ebell, energy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

“The provision to open a small part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration cannot pass without their support, even though that provision has already passed the House with a comfortable bipartisan majority,” Ebell added.

Alaskans Disappointed

Alaskan Democrats and Republicans alike said the setback was disappointing to citizens of their state.

“Well, I’m shocked because quite frankly our greatest support has been in the House. It’s very disappointing. I will not yet accept defeat, but this is a setback and now we’re going to have to go back to other ways of getting there,” Alaska Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, a Republican of Native Alaskan ancestry, told KTUU television.

“I hope this is just a hiccup on the way to opening ANWR,” added Rep. Ethan Berkowitz (D). “But it does highlight the danger of having a one-party strategy, trying to get all your votes from inside the Republican Party. So this has proven itself to be difficult, and I hope it doesn’t prove itself to be fatal.”

Prospects Uncertain

The fate of resource recovery in ANWR remains uncertain. House and Senate negotiators must hammer out any differences in their respective budget legislation in conference committee. The committee could decide to include ANWR resource recovery or exclude it.

With the American public and majorities in both houses of Congress supporting resource recovery, the logical position would be to include it. According to the November 9 Fairbanks News-Miner, “recent polls show about 59 percent of Americans support drilling.”

However, if centrist House Democrats who support resource recovery vow to oppose the Republican-crafted budget legislation regardless of the ANWR outcome, and if the small group of Republican ANWR opponents continues its opposition, resource recovery could be scuttled for the current legislative year.

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.