WASHINGTON, March 19 (UPI) -- The Senate ignored the lure of a potential $2 billion in new revenues for the cash-strapped Treasury Wednesday and blocked a controversial move to use the congressional budget resolution to jimmy the lock on the oil reserves in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The Republican-controlled Senate voted 52-48 against the tactical maneuver that listed the anticipated sale of oil-drilling leases in the Alaskan refuge as a $2 billion revenue-producing component of the fiscal year 2004 budget.
"Today's win over the latest attempt to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling is a victory for wildlife and all Americans," said World Wildlife Fund Vice President Brooks Yeager, one of several Washington environmental groups to cheer Wednesday's vote. "Drilling proponents know they can't win on a straight-up vote, so they again tried to sneak a victory through the legislative back door."
Eight Republican senators voted to block the proposal that had been inserted in the budget bill by the GOP-controlled Budget Committee while five Democrats voted to allow development.
By including the proposal in the budget bill, the opening of ANWR's Area 1002 could have been passed by a simple majority and dodged a Democratic filibuster that would require 60 votes to break had the ANWR measure stood alone.
Although it was attached to a budget bill, the debate over the plan largely ignored the financial aspects and became largely a heated rehash of now-familiar stands by proponents who said it would help supply the nation with non-imported energy, and opponents who argued there wasn't enough oil in Area 1002 to justify the risk of environmental damage.
"Once again, wildlife has won over wildcatters," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, senior vice president the National Wildlife Federation. "The message from the Senate is clear. Oilrigs don't belong in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is exactly that -- a refuge for wildlife, not a platform for drilling rigs."
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, told his colleagues Tuesday night that scientific studies of the caribou in the adjoining North Slope region indicated the migrating herds had not been harmed by energy production that began in the 1970s.
"Oil and gas activity has not harmed the caribou at all," he said. "There are more caribou in Alaska than there are people."
Stevens also urged support for ANWR drilling as a means of providing a living for the area's Eskimo natives.
In the weeks prior to Wednesday's vote, the Department of the Interior publicly called ANWR the nation's largest untapped source of oil.
"To address the nation's growing energy needs, we must optimize leasing opportunities on federal lands," Assistant Secretary Rebecca Watson said Wednesday in testimony before the House Resources Committee.
Watson told the lawmakers that the United States annually consumes about 3 billion barrels of domestically produced oil and 4 billion barrels of imports. Drilling proponents say ANWR's Area 1002 holds up to 16 billion barrels of oil.
It was not immediately known if the Republicans would try again to push an ANWR proposal through Congress during the current session, however the chairman of the Energy Committee said increasing domestic energy production one way or another was still on the agenda.
Chairman Pete Domenici, R-N.M., announced late Wednesday that the committee would next month begin marking up energy legislation that would expand oil and natural gas production on federal lands and in the Gulf of Mexico.
"This vote today was cast by senators who don't understand the link between abundant, affordable energy and a vigorous economy," said Domenici, whose state is a major gas producer. "I do and I refuse to turn my back on this economy and the American consumer."
(Reported by Hil Anderson, UPI Chief Energy Correspondent)