New York Times
March 18, 2003

Republicans Resigned to Defeat on Alaska Wildlife Refuge Drilling Plan
by David Firestone
WASHINGTON, March 17 - Senate Republican officials said today that they had been unable to muster enough votes to begin oil drilling in the Alaska wildlife refuge, probably dooming the signature energy plan of the Bush administration.

A vote on the drilling plan will probably take place by Friday or early next week, and lobbying groups in favor of oil production in Alaska say they have not given up hope of achieving a slim Senate majority. But Republican officials say they are not counting on more than 48 votes for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"At this point, we don't have the 50 votes, and I don't think we're going to get them," a Republican official said. "So the Democrats will probably be able to strip it out."

Such a vote would be an embarrassment for the Bush administration, which came into office in 2001 vowing to reverse President Bill Clinton's refusal to permit drilling in the refuge. It was unable to get the measure through the Senate last year, when it was controlled by Democrats. After the Republicans took control of the Senate in January, administration officials hoped for a different result, but they said at least eight Republicans and most Democrats remained opposed to the plan.

Supporters of drilling said they had hoped to take advantage of rising oil prices and a potential war with Iraq to argue that the United States needs more domestic oil production to free itself from sources in the Middle East. In Congressional testimony on Wednesday, Gale A. Norton, the interior secretary, called the area "flat, white nothingness" and said it represented the nation's greatest potential for future oil.

"Our reliance on foreign oil has impacts on the lives of American families, farmers and workers as the current gasoline price increase shows," Ms. Norton said. "As long as we have planes, trains and automobiles powered by oil and gas, we will need a homegrown, stable, reliable source of supply."

But drilling in the refuge remains highly unpopular in public opinion polls, a result of years of efforts by environmental groups to depict oil production as disastrous to an unspoiled and fragile area that is home to many wildlife species. Opponents also say the refuge would not produce enough oil to justify the effort, and oil companies have not been nearly as enthusiastic about the prospect as the Bush administration or the government of Alaska.

"It has never made sense to drill for oil there, and citizens from around the country have made their views on that clear to their senators," said Gene Karpinski, executive director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, an advocacy association that has lobbied heavily against the plan.

But Mr. Karpinski added that he was nervous about declaring victory because Republicans might have more senators on their side than they were revealing.

"We remain cautiously optimistic that a majority of the Senate opposes drilling," he said. "But of course we'll be working overtime till the question is called, to ensure that we get the votes we need."

The drilling plan is in the 2004 budget resolution that the Senate began debating today. It is a measure that sets the overall revenues and spending limits for the coming fiscal year. Democrats plan to propose an amendment that would delete the reference to drilling, and Republicans will need 50 votes to stop the amendment. But at this point, Republicans say they have only 48.

If the drilling plan is removed from the budget process, Republicans will not be able to raise it again without encountering a Democratic filibuster, which requires 60 votes to stop. Last week, Republicans said they were hoping to persuade four senators - Mark Pryor and Blanche L. Lincoln of Arkansas, both Democrats, and Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, both Republicans - to change their earlier stance and support drilling. But the senators said through spokesmen that they remained opposed to drilling in the refuge.

"The senator has said he would meet with both sides and the supporters gave him brochures, but he has not been convinced," said Mr. Pryor's spokesman, Rodell Mollineau. "He said during the campaign that he didn't believe drilling was good for the environment or would meet our national energy needs, and that hasn't changed."

Roger Herrera, a consultant for Arctic Power, a pro-drilling lobbying group financed by the State of Alaska and oil companies, said that he did not believe that the fight was over and that supporters might have more backers than opponents realized.
But two leading Republican supporters of drilling, Senators Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico and Ted Stevens of Alaska, canceled a news conference today to announce their strategy for winning the measure's approval, and aides said there were no plans to reschedule it.