After a tumultuous year of steady progress toward passage of an Arctic oil and gas drilling provision in Congress, Alaska senators Ted Sevens and Lisa Murkowski had to settle Dec. 21 for promises from congressional leaders that they will take up the issue again in the New Year.
The drilling proposal would open 2,000 acres to development on the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain of the vast Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the northeastern corner of Alaska.
The Alaska delegation, including Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, came closer to victory in recent weeks than it has since 1995 when both houses of Congress approved the measure only to see it vetoed by President Bill Clinton.
The Senate finally rejected the oil drilling bill late Dec. 21, after more than eight hours of behind-the-scenes wrangling that began when the Republican majority failed to rally the 60 votes needed to prevent a possible Democratic filibuster against it. The Senate then passed the $453 billion defense spending package, without ANWR, 93-0.
Two days earlier, the House of Representatives had overwhelmingly passed the defense spending package with ANWR drilling, after 16 House Democrats rallied to help win an earlier procedural vote 214 to 201. Twenty-one Republicans opposed the motion.
The House reconvened Dec. 22 and approved final versions, without ANWR drilling, of defense spending, budget reconciliation and other bills requiring action before year’s end.
ANWR ran into trouble in conferenceStevens, who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Defense Appropriations, had inserted the ANWR drilling provision into the defense spending legislation during the week of Dec. 12 when it ran into trouble in conference committee.
The Senate had approved Arctic drilling earlier this fall in a $35 billion budget reconciliation bill. Stevens realized the drilling measure had bogged down in conference negotiations over budget reconciliation, another Republican priority, after the measure ran into a wall of opposition in the House. House Democrats, unhappy about cuts to entitlement programs, unanimously opposed the budget reconciliation bill, forcing GOP leaders to bow to demands from moderate Republicans to strip ANWR drilling from the $50 billion House version of the deficit-cutting measure.
“This has been the saddest day of my life,” said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, after ANWR drilling failed in the Senate Dec. 21.
“We are extremely disappointed by the outcome of the vote to break a likely filibuster on ANWR today,” Murkowski said in the aftermath. “We won support from all but two Republicans for a bill that contained all the environmental stipulations needed to fully protect the environment and wildlife of the North Slope. Opening ANWR to limited oil and gas exploration is the right thing to do.”
Arctic Power worked to endRight up until the final hours of Senate debate, Arctic Power, the pro-ANWR lobbying group from Alaska, had continued to knock on doors in Congress.
“All of us who worked on the campaign are extremely disappointed,” said pro-ANWR lobbyist Jerry Hood.
“It’s a funny way to lose, by getting 57 votes,” said Roger Herrera, in assessing the pro-ANWR drilling campaign. Herrera is a longtime pro-ANWR lobbyist who worked with Arctic Power, Alaska Native groups and others who pushed for oil and gas development on the refuge’s coastal plain this year.
“(The close vote) points to the inevitability that the coastal plain will be open to drilling, sooner rather than later. Inevitably, we will prevail,” Herrera said. “But the greens have done a disservice to Alaska. They are doing their damnedest to wreck the Alaska economy, or at the least to disrupt it.”
During the Senate debate leading up to the critical vote, ANWR drilling opponents, including Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., thanked Stevens for his candor in telling the Anchorage Daily News and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that ANWR drilling would be out if the Senate failed to rally 60 votes to keep the measure in the defense spending package.
Cantwell and other Senate Democrats hailed the vote as a victory, with Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., saying “Santa’s sleigh would not be delivering goodies to the oil companies.”
Earlier, Stevens had threatened to continue the fight for ANWR drilling throughout the Christmas holidays, if necessary.
Stevens’ appeal personalAlaska’s senior senator, who has campaigned to allow oil drilling in the refuge for more than a quarter-century, made an unusually personal appeal in the final minutes of the debate. “Every one of you, have you ever come (when I was) chairman of appropriations and tell me you needed help for your state and I have turned you down?” Stevens asked. “I have fought” to help, he added
Sen. Robert C. Byrd, 88, and a friend of Stevens for decades, rose to oppose him.
“He is my friend. I love him. But I love the Senate more,” said the West Virginia Democrat, arguing that Republicans were breaking the rules to achieve their political purposes.
Stevens responded a few minutes later, speaking more softly than his “Incredible Hulk” necktie might have led spectators to expect. “I’ve had great admiration for you, and I’ve studied at your feet, but I do not believe that I deserve that speech on the rules,” he said.
Murkowski also defended Stevens’ actions after the vote. “What is clear from today is how much all Alaskans owe to my colleague Sen. Ted Stevens. He followed Senate rules, honored Senate traditions and worked harder on this issue than anyone could have. It is an honor to work with him and we will continue to work toward the goal of providing America with the energy this nation so desperately needs,” she said.
Murkowski: commitment to continue“Whether or not to develop America’s most significant energy reserve is obviously not settled. The fight to open ANWR is not over. We have a commitment from congressional leaders that we will consider ANWR again next year. Hopefully, then we will finally get the fair vote where this issue will be decided by a simple majority of the U.S. Senate,” Murkowski added.
Other advocates of ANWR drilling also said they would continue the fight next year.
But 2006 is an election year for Congress, which typically creates a highly partisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill, Herrera said.
“It’s difficult to get legislation like this through in election years,” he said. “But every month, we approach an inevitable energy crisis that is so (easily forecasted) by anyone willing to look for it. So the sooner we get this done, the better off everybody will be.”
As for the immediate strategy: “We will think about it over the Christmas break and see what clearer thought will bring forth,” Herrera added.
“I don’t think any of us think it’s over. We’ve agreed to get together after the holidays and talk about it,” Hood said. “Certainly, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., has come up with some likely scenarios. With a majority of the Senate supporting ANWR drilling, I think there’s still some life in the campaign.”