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The debate over arctic oil drilling erupts again

WASHINGTON -- Hoping to capitalize on public ire over record-high gasoline prices, advocates of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration predict the House next week will authorize drilling there.

Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chairman of the House Resources Committee, says oil production in the arctic refuge on Alaska's coastal plain "would dramatically increase domestic supplies of oil, create thousands of jobs and lower prices at the pump."

Brian Kennedy, press secretary for the panel, said "it's a foregone conclusion that the House will pass the legislation, yet again," when the lawmakers take up the measure.

But environmentalists -- labeling the ANWR fight as one of their major political issues -- argue that the area is a crown jewel of U.S. public lands and should be protected for future generations. The 20-million acre refuge is home to grizzly bears, caribou and more than 100 species of birds.

The measure heading for the House floor would allow drilling on 2,000 acres of the refuge.

Oil companies and labor unions estimate that drilling in ANWR could create 800,000 to 1.3 million jobs and could cut America's dependence on foreign oil by 20 percent by 2025. The United States imports more than 60 percent of its oil, mainly from Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Russia, Iraq, Canada, Mexico and Nigeria.

When they bring the measure to a vote next week, House Republicans plan to stress that gasoline prices have hit an all-time national average of $2.04 a gallon.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chair of the House Energy and Committee, argues that "jobs, economic growth and personal opportunity in America depend on energy and that means America has to get it somewhere."

Barton said there was only a "tiny" likelihood of a mishap such as an oil spill, explosion or leaking pipeline.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a senior Democrat on the House Resources panel, said proponents of drilling are "wildly" exaggerating the potential job creation and oil production from ANWR. "Their economics just don't work," Markey said.

In 1995, both the House and Senate voted to open ANWR to drilling, but President Clinton vetoed the measure.

The House has voted to open ANWR to oil drilling twice in the past three years, in 2001 and 2003, but the measure failed to clear the Senate each time.

President Bush said last month that drilling in ANWR could have made a difference in rising gasoline prices.

"Had ANWR been passed -- had it not been vetoed in the past -- we anticipate additional barrels of oil would have been coming out of that part of the world, which would obviously have a positive impact for today's consumers," Bush said.

Presidential nominee John Kerry, D-Mass., and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., have led the charge to block the drilling.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who favors the drilling, has not scheduled a Senate vote because the measure lacks the 60 votes necessary to end a threatened filibuster that would block the legislation.

Melinda Pierce, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, said the ANWR measure would be "dead on arrival in the Senate."

Pierce said the ANWR issue "is a political maneuver" in which Republicans are "trying to shine a spotlight on Senate Democrats as preventing consumers from getting relief from high prices at the pump."

Pierce contended that ANWR drilling wouldn't make a difference at the gasoline pump. "We could drill in every national park and still not drill our way to energy independence," Pierce said, adding that the solution is more conservation, renewable and alternative energy sources and improving efficiency of air conditioners and automobiles.

Pierce noted the United States sits on less than 3 percent of the world's oil reserves yet consumes 25 percent of the world's oil.

Kennedy cited a March report by the Energy Information Administration in the U.S. Department of Energy that estimates recoverable oil from the refuge at 10.3 billion barrels, twice that of the entire state of Texas, which has 4.9 billion barrels of reserves. The report says oil companies could get peak production in six years.

But Athan Manuel, director of U.S. Pirg's Arctic Wilderness Campaign, estimates it would take at least 10 years to get the oil to the lower 48 states.

"It's not a short-term solution to either the price of gas at the pump or to making America energy independent," Manuel said.

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