Senate votes to allow oil drilling in Arctic refuge

The Bush administration's long held goal to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge came a step closer to realisation this week after the Senate voted, by the narrowest of margins, in favour of it.

A bipartisan group of Senators had attempted to safeguard the area by issuing a proposal to strip the provision on drilling from the 2006 congressional budget resolution. Their proposal was beaten by a vote of 51 - 49.

The Bush Administration had advanced the plan for Arctic drilling by including an assumption of US$2.4 billion in revenues to the federal treasury from leasing and development of the area into the budget process.

However, the Sierra Club, one of America's largest conservation groups, says the numbers are speculative at best. Oil leases on the north slope of Alaska have historically sold for about US$50 an acre, they say, meaning the budget figure voted on by Congress has been inflated by at least 80 times that average.

"Today's vote is an abuse of the budget process that undermines the pillars of our democracy," said Carl Pope, Sierra Club executive director. "It is fiscally irresponsible and would mean the sacrifice of one of America's great natural treasures. This razor-thin vote is by no means a mandate to drill in the Arctic Refuge."

Even after this vote, the Senate must still pass the budget resolution before it goes to the conference committee. There they will have to iron out their differences with the House spending plan which does not assume Arctic drilling revenues. The conference report is then subject to a straight up or down vote in both the House and Senate. After that is the Budget Reconciliation Bill where congress must pass the actual legislation to authorise opening the Arctic Refuge to drilling.

The close-won vote was challenged even by Republican senators. David Jenkins, Government Affairs Director of Republicans for Environmental Protection, said: "We are deeply disappointed with those within our party who have led the effort to degrade this national treasure for a relatively small amount of oil. It is unfortunate that they cannot face plain facts that a nation with less than 3% of the world's oil reserves must strengthen energy security by reducing our reliance on oil, not by feeding a dependence that makes our nation more vulnerable. Congress must focus on lasting solutions, including greater energy efficiency and diversifying our energy choices."

Drilling in the Arctic refuge has long been at the centre of the Bush administration's energy policy despite the opposition and despite many people believing that there are far cheaper, quicker, safer and cleaner energy solutions available.

By David Hopkins



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