Republicans Scheme on ANWR Drilling

The battle over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) has reached a fever pitch this week, as lobbyists from both sides of the debate swarm Capitol Hill hoping to influence the few members of Congress still on the fence. President Bush and most Congressional Republicans continue to press for opening up the pristine land in Alaska’s remote northeast corner to oil drilling so as to lessen dependence on foreign reserves. Meanwhile, environmentalists and most Democrats are vying to protect ANWR from oil development at any cost.

The now-pristine ANWR is critical habitat to 160 to 180 bird species, 36 types of land mammals, nine marine mammal species, and 36 kinds of fish.

With bigger majorities in both the House and Senate, though, Republicans have the best chance to get a drilling bill through since 1995, when they passed an ANWR drilling bill only to be stymied by President Clinton’s veto. Despite their powerful position, though, Republican Congressional leaders are divided on when, where and how to present an ANWR drilling proposal. The President’s omnibus energy bill died on the vine last year due to the inclusion of ANWR drilling.

Congressman Joe Barton, the Texas Republican who chairs the House committee writing the new version of the energy bill, says he would rather keep ANWR drilling out of his bill so as to increase its chances of passage later this session. But other influential House Republicans, including majority leader Tom Delay of Texas, have labeled ANWR an important part of the energy bill, and are vowing to include it in the final version.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans fear they won’t have the 60 votes needed to cut off a promised Democratic filibuster. One way around this would be for Republicans to add an ANWR drilling provision to the budget resolution, which maps out how Congress plans to spend its money over the following year. The budget resolution cannot be filibustered and needs only 51 votes to pass. But last year Congress failed to pass an even less contentious budget resolution due to lack of consensus on spending priorities.

While Congressional positioning on ANWR is in the spotlight right now, environmentalists are quietly cheering on BP, ConocoPhillips and ChevronTexaco for pulling out of Arctic Power, the lobbying group formed to promote oil drilling in ANWR. Only ExxonMobil remains an active member and funder of the initiative, leaving many to wonder why the White House is so keen on scratching its ANWR itch when the industry that stands to gain the most shows relatively little interest.