Democrats block Alaska drilling in US defense bill

By Tom Doggett and Julie Vorman

WASHINGTON, Dec 21 (Reuters) - Senate Democrats succeeded on Wednesday in blocking, for now, oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which Republicans sought to add to a massive massive $453 billion war-time military spending bill.

The ANWR refuge, which sprawls along Alaska's northern coast and may hold 10 billion barrels of oil, has been the focus of bitter wrangling in the U.S. Congress for more than two decades.

Most Senate Democrats and some moderate Republicans said the frigid wilderness and its assortment of wildlife, ranging from polar bears to peregrine falcons, should be protected. Republicans said ANWR must be unlocked for drilling to stop a steady slide in U.S. crude oil production.

Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska attached the measure to the unrelated defense bill which sets spending for the military and Pentagon weapons programs in the coming year.

Although few politicians wanted to be seen rejecting a bill that pays the salaries of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, furious Democrats and a half-dozen Republicans who have long opposed ANWR drilling conducted extended debate, known as a filibuster, to delay its passage.

The Republican majority failed to get the required 60 votes in the 100-member chamber needed to cut off debate. The vote was 56-44.

"It is a real victory for the environmental movement all throughout this country," said Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California, who opposed drilling in the refuge.

Leaders of both parties huddled to figure out the next step for the military funding bill.

"ANWR has got to come out (of the defense bill)," said Republican Trent Lott of Mississippi, whose state stands to gain vast amounts of Hurricane Katrina reconstruction aid also in the bill.

Another Republican, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, said he was disappointed that ANWR drilling was blocked but the overall defense bill needed to be passed.

But Stevens, who has fought since the 1980s to pry open ANWR, indicated he would not give up easily.

"I want you to know we're going to be here until (New Years Day) ... We're going to stay here until this is finished," Stevens said just before the vote. "I can't go home for Christmas. I've already canceled (airplane tickets)."


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages ANWR, describes it as "one of the finest examples of wilderness left on the planet." The refuge is the same size as South Carolina, with most of its land accessible only by plane or boat.

Oil companies say exploration and drilling could be limited to a small area and would not harm the wildlife.

"It is a 2,000-acre limitation," Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said, referring to the amount of land within the refuge that would be opened for drilling. "If we can do anything more to help decrease our reliance on oil imports, we need to do it."

Republican Pete Domenici of New Mexico will try again in the spring to attach ANWR drilling to a filibuster-proof bill, an aide said. Domenici said oil platforms already operate on Alaska's North Slope in an environmentally sensitive way.

"They look like little outhouses," he said. "You won't be able to even see or locate what has transpired (with drilling equipment)."

The defense bill also includes funds for the potential bird flu pandemic and a program that helps poor families pay winter heating bills.

The U.S. House approved the defense bill on Monday.

Informant: John Calvert


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