"This has been a long time coming," Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said after the panel voted to include authorization of the energy exploration in a budget bill.
But the drilling initiative, which environmentalists strongly oppose, still could be thwarted by an issue unrelated to the decades-old dispute: a fight over federal spending cuts.
In a sign of the changed political terrain, environmental lobbyists yesterday were talking about threatened cuts to Medicaid and student loans almost as much as the caribou they say would be endangered by the Arctic drilling. Their goal: to present as many reasons as possible to coax lawmakers, especially moderate Republicans, to vote against the budget bill.
"It's a massive bill that's going to be really hard to pass," said Melinda Pierce, a Sierra Club lobbyist, reports the Seattle Times.
"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, informs Reuters.