House lawmakers passed legislation early today authorizing oil and gas production in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). The 308-to-106 vote on the fiscal 2006 Defense Department appropriations bill clears the way for a pivotal battle on the Senate floor later this week.
The ANWR drilling provision was attached to a $453 billion Pentagon spending bill. Democrats complained that they were being forced to accept energy development in ANWR or risk voting against legislation that provides $50 billion for ongoing military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"There is something especially outrageous about the willingness of the majority party leadership to allow the Defense Department bill, in a time of war, to be held hostage to totally unrelated special interest items," said Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.
But Resources Committee Chairman Richard W. Pombo (R-Calif.) said the vote to allow exploration and drilling on 2,000 acres of ANWR's 1.5 million-acre coastal plain represents "the largest potential increase of America's energy supplies and the biggest step toward energy independence" since Congress approved the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act in 1973.
The wildlife refuge is believed to hold some 10 billion barrels of recoverable crude oil, the largest untapped oil deposit left onshore in the U.S. "When the Senate passes this bill, a nearly 20-year debate will be brought to a close and we will finally get to the business of meeting our energy demands with more American supplies," Pombo declared.
The ANWR provision would steer 80% of federal funds from lease sales authorized in the bill to state and local governments affected by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. It would also direct 20% of drilling royalties to the affected states.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada threatened to use procedural tactics to slow debate in the Senate if the Republican leadership presses ahead. It's unclear whether drilling supporters would be able to muster the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster and force an up-or-down vote.