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Alaskan oil has been an important part of George Bush's energy plan






Drilling in Alaska, a Priority for Bush, Fails in the Senate


WASHINGTON, March 19 The Senate narrowly voted against drilling for oil in the Alaskan wildlife refuge today, dealing a crippling blow to the central element of the Bush administration's energy plan.

The vote, 52 to 48, came after the hardest-fought lobbying campaign yet in the Congressional session, setting environmental groups, who said oil production would destroy an unspoiled wilderness, against Alaskan business interests, who said the oil was necessary for jobs and energy independence. Until the final moments, neither side was certain of victory, and the decision came down to two Republicans Senators Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Gordon H. Smith of Oregon whose opposition to drilling was not final until the floor vote.

The two days of debate that preceded the vote were unusually passionate and caustic, filled with battling statistics about the amount of oil under the tundra and sarcastic asides asking whether caribou were more important than American jobs. The chief proponent of drilling, Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, ended his remarks on the floor with an unusual but unmistakable threat to use his power as Appropriations Committee chairman against those who disagreed with him.

"People who vote against this today are voting against me," Mr. Stevens said. "I will not forget it."

Even though Mr. Stevens has the ability to kill any senator's pet project, the threat did not seem to change any votes on what national environmental groups have called a core issue. Republican leaders had expressed hope that their takeover of the Senate this year would change the chamber's longstanding opposition to oil production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but eight Republicans sided with most Democrats against drilling, while five Democrats supported it.

"I'm so proud of my colleagues because that's kind of a threat from a very powerful senator," Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who led the opposition to drilling, said after the vote. "But you know what? There's something more powerful out there than any senator, even than any president, and that's God's gift to us. And we stood on that side of preserving this wondrous gift."

Today's vote, which stripped the drilling provision from the Senate's annual budget resolution, did not kill the possibility of approving drilling this year, but it made it much harder. Had the measure been included in the resolution, opponents would not have been able to filibuster it, because of the Senate's budget procedures. After today's vote, opponents will be able to filibuster future efforts, which will require drilling supporters to come up with 60 votes.

Mr. Stevens nonetheless vowed to bring up the measure repeatedly.

"It's never decided until we win," he said, calling today's vote the most important to him in his 32 years in the Senate.

In addition to Mr. Coleman and Mr. Smith, the other Republicans voting against drilling were Senators Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Peter G. Fitzgerald of Illinois and John McCain of Arizona. Democrats voting for drilling were Senators Zell Miller of Georgia, John B. Breaux and Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, and Daniel K. Akaka and Daniel K. Inouye of Hawaii.

Representative Tom DeLay, the House Republican leader, said his chamber would probably approve drilling next month as part of an energy bill, which could force another vote in the Senate.

The House could also approve drilling in its budget, which would mean Republicans on a conference committee would have to decide whether bringing the issue back to Senate would put the entire budget at risk of being voted down.

Alaska's government, along with its oil and labor interests, has long sought permission to begin drilling in the 1.5-million-acre northern coastal plain of the wildlife refuge, which was created in 1960. The area is 65 miles east of Prudhoe Bay, North America's largest oilfield, and proponents say it contains enough oil to constitute half of all domestic oil production in five years, an estimate that has been disputed. Administration officials had hoped that Republican control of Congress would shatter the power of the environmental lobby and had used the rising price of gasoline and the imminent war with Iraq as arguments for increased domestic oil production.

But opinion polls showed that most people still opposed drilling in the remote area, and opponents capitalized on that sentiment in the Senate by showing photographs of frolicking polar bears, sumptuous wildflowers and calving caribou, all of which they said would be irreparably damaged by the search for oil.

"Do we value this land and are we prepared to protect it, or are we going to desecrate it, diminish it, change it forever for a small amount of oil?" asked Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, a Democratic presidential candidate who appeared at several rallies with environmental groups.

But the colorful wildlife photographs were ridiculed by supporters of drilling, who said the area was little more than a barren, frozen wasteland most of the year. Alaska's two senators, in particular, expressed fury that their state was considered an untouchable environmental paradise by people in the lower 48 states.

"We in Alaska are starting to feel cut off from the rest of the world," said Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska. "The rest of the country would just as soon lock us up and say, `Nothing, nada, zip, you cannot do anything. You are not responsible enough to carry on development because we are concerned about the environment.' "

She added that many Americans seemed to care more for the caribou than for the jobs of Alaskans.

"We talk about the caribou and we are concerned about the caribou and we care for the wildlife," Ms. Murkowski said. "But the fact is, you have to have money to buy your kids shoes and put food on the table, and only the jobs can provide that."

The White House, including Vice President Dick Cheney, had heavily lobbied Senate Republicans, and Senate officials said that Mr. Coleman and several members were promised sizable investments in new energy sources like biomass diesel fuel. But environmental groups promised to pillory any senator who switched a vote, and after the vote their lobbyists were so exuberant that they had to be quieted by a guard.

Republicans said today's vote would not slow their drive to approve a budget later this week for the 2004 fiscal year.


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