Alaskan oil drilling rejected by US Senate leaving question mark over Bush energy plan

Plans to permit drilling for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as part of the Bush Administration’s energy bill, were rejected by the US Senate on 18 April. However opinion is divided as to whether this brings an end to a 20-year campaign over oil development in the region.

Some believe that the strength of the Senate vote against drilling has effectively cut off any chance of future compromises being negotiated with the House, which had approved drilling in its energy plan. However President Bush has indicated that he would continue to fight to open up the refuge during these negotiations into the final plan. Also, the two Alaskan Republican senators behind the drilling proposals, have said they plan other amendments. There is a suggestion that efforts might be underway to encourage Native American communities in Alaska to permit drilling on their land outside the wildlife refuge.

Pressure to open up the ANWR coastline for oil exploration, gained momentum in the wake of the September 11 attacks as concerns over the security of national energy reserves became acute. However, its inclusion in the energy plan attracted widespread opposition across parties as well as within the environment lobby, extending Senate discussions over two months.

During this time, the relevance of the national security argument has been questioned following the voting out by the Senate in March of an energy bill proposal to require vehicle manufacturers to boost fuel economy (see related story). It was estimated that this initiative would have saved as much oil in three months as is likely to be developed in the refuge.

Opponents also disputed the potential reserves likely to be available. Only one exploratory well is reported to have been drilled locally on private land, and its results remain undisclosed. Federal geologists have suggested yields of 5.7 billion to 11.6 billion barrels of oil for an area east of the Prudhoe Bay oil field; and it would take a decade of development work to bring the area into production.

The extended debate in the Senate introduces further delays on the finalisation of a national energy programme which the Bush Administration had set out to introduce as soon as possible, to prevent any repeats of energy shortages as experienced in California last year. However, according to a recent report, the Administration has shifted its attention to the potential for drilling in the Rocky Mountains instead.

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