WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate Energy Committee voted on Wednesday to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling as part of a broad budget bill to fund the federal government.
Tapping the refuge's billions of barrels of crude oil is a key part of the Bush administration's national energy plan to boost domestic production. Environmental groups and many Democrats oppose drilling, saying that instead of threatening the habitat of wildlife in ANWR, lawmakers should look at ways to cut oil consumption with more fuel-efficient vehicle standards.
The refuge, which is about the size of South Carolina, sprawls across more than 19 million acres in northeastern Alaska. It is home to polar bears, musk oxen, caribou and migratory birds.
The energy panel approved the ANWR drilling provision, 13-9. All Republicans on the committee voted in favor of the plan except Gordon Smith of Oregon (CORRECTION), plus Democrats Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Daniel Akaka of Hawaii.
"Opening ANWR is sound public policy that would serve the country well many years into the future," said Pete Domenici, the Republican chairman of the committee. The oil produced from the wildlife refuge "would provide some cushion" for U.S. supplies, he said.
The legislative proposal will be folded into a much bigger budget bill to fund the federal government, which the Senate Budget Committee is scheduled to vote on next week and the full U.S. Senate the following week.
Republican leaders decided to attach the Alaska drilling plan to budget legislation because under Senate rules the giant spending bill cannot be filibustered. They argue the drilling language can be in the budget bill because it will raise an estimated $2.4 billion in leasing revenue.
However, Democrats said they plan to object to the drilling language when the bill goes to the Senate floor, claiming the drilling plan sets policy more than raises revenue. Democrat Byron Dorgan of North Dakota said the Republicans were "short-circuiting the process" by attaching ANWR to a budget bill.
The Senate Energy Committee also rejected a proposal from Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon that would have prevented Alaskan oil production from being exported to China or other foreign markets.
Under the drilling plan, ANWR's 1.5 million-acre coastal plain would be opened for energy exploration. As much as 10.4 billion barrels of crude could be recovered from the refuge's coastal plain, according to government estimates.
The Interior Department would be required to hold two lease sales before October 1, 2010, to lease tracts in ANWR to oil companies.
Opening ANWR would have no impact on replacing the shutdown oil production in the Gulf of Mexico caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
If Congress approved drilling in the Arctic refuge this year, oil would not begin flowing until about 2015, according to the Energy Information Administration.
A coalition of moderate Republicans and most Democrats in the Senate in the past successfully blocked attempts to add ANWR drilling to energy legislation. However, the House of Representatives has repeatedly voted in favor of opening the Alaskan refuge to energy development.