HOUSE votes to allow drilling in Arctic refuge

Thursday, August 2nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush scored a legislative victory as the House approved a package of proposals aimed at boosting energy development, conservation and drilling in an Arctic wildlife refuge.

Working past midnight, the House passed the energy bill by a 240-189 vote early Thursday after a spirited _ at times testy _ debate over whether to allow oil companies into the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska.

Bush has called the refuge the country's major untapped source of petroleum and insisted drilling can be done there without harming the environment.

In the end, a majority of House members, including a handful of Democrats, agreed and ejected an attempt to strip from the 510-page energy legislation a provision that would allow exploration and drilling in the refuge's 1.5 million acre coastal plain. The vote on that provision was 223-206.

Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham called passage of the bill ``a tremendous victory for America, for the economy and for the environment.''

``This moves America backward,'' countered Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri. He said the bill was ``tilted to the energy lobby'' with too little to get Americans to conserve energy and too many subsidies for oil, coal, nuclear and other energy producers.

The legislation includes:

_Lifting the congressional prohibition against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, giving oil companies access to what is believe to be the biggest domestic oil find since the discovery of the Prudhoe Bay fields not far to the west.

_A package of tax breaks and incentives totally $33.5 billion over 10 years, mostly earmarked to a wide range energy producers including coal, oil, and nuclear industries.

_A modest boost in fuel economy for sport utility vehicles.

_Tax incentives for buying hybrid gasoline-electric cars, solar panels, some high-efficiency appliances and improvements in building energy efficiency.

_ An increase in federal money to help low-income families pay heating and cooling bills.

_ Expansion of research into clean coal technology.

``This bill is a giant step forward in securing America's energy future,'' said Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., calling it a balance between production and conservation

But Democrats charged that the ambitious set of tax benefits _ broader than the Bush administration has recommended _ would force Congress to break its budget agreement and unleash _ as Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., proclaimed _ ``a budgetary train wreck.''

``They're about to build their oil rigs on top of the Medicare and Social Security trust funds,'' snapped Rep. Edward Markey. D-Mass.

It was the debate over Arctic refuge drilling and automobile fuel economy that produced the most spirited debate.

How can Congress call for drilling in the refuge _ an annual haven for millions of migrating birds, thousands of calving caribou, polar bears and other wildlife _ and at the same time do little about gas guzzling sport utility vehicles, argued Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y.

But Boehlert's proposal that would have boosted the fuel economy requirement for SUVs, minivans and pickups to 27.5 miles per gallon, the current requirement for passenger cars, was defeated 269-160.

As for the refuge, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, a former trapper and school teacher, angrily denounced some of those who oppose drilling when they have never visited the refuge. Far from a pristine treasure, he said it was a hostile ground made for oil development.

The refuge ``was supposed to be drilled, explored for the American people,'' said Young.

``This is no ordinary land,'' shot back Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., who said he had been there. ``It's a cathedral of nature, an American heritage. And it's our responsibility to protect it.''

Pro-drilling forces have maintained that new drilling technologies will limit the ``footprint'' of any oil exploration or drilling to no more than 2,000 acres, a tiny fraction of the flat tundra that makes up most area where oil is to be found.