WASHINGTON, June 17 (UPI) -- The House has postponed a vote on a bill that would allow drilling in part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a politically divisive issue that has continually resurfaced on Capitol Hill since 1995 when President Bill Clinton vetoed similar legislation.
But in the current political climate, no new ANWR legislation will make it as far as the 1995 bill, according to Bill Wicker, Democratic spokesman for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
"It's election-year politics and has nothing to do with solving our nation's energy problem," he said.
Still, the ANWR debate continues to reappear as efforts to balance conservation clash with the desire to cut U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Proponents of the legislation say the decade-old effort to tap ANWR's oil reserves should not be forgotten, especially in a time of high gas prices.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton admitted frustration Tuesday over not being able to pass the controversial plan during her term.
"We could be seeing hundreds of thousands of barrels a day, if not millions of barrels a day coming from ANWR," she said at a news conference at the Energy Daily, a magazine focused on energy issues.
The criticism of Clinton's 1995 veto came as Norton described how new technologies make drilling safer for the environment. Norton said ANWR drilling is vital to increasing the United States' domestic oil production.
Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for the House Resources Committee, said modern technology has improved enough that oil can be taken from ANWR with little damage to the environment. He added that the proposed drilling area is frozen tundra with little vegetation or wildlife.
Nine months out of the year construction equipment can travel along ice roads in the tundra with little effect on the environment, Kennedy said.
In addition to alleviating rising gas prices, oil production from ANWR may hold other benefits for the country, he said.
"Oil has a big link to national security," Kennedy said. Oil mined in a small part of the refuge known as the 1002 area could replace the oil the country imports from Saudi Arabia, he said. Money sent to Saudi Arabia would be diverted to Alaska, resulting in as many as 1 million new jobs, Kennedy said.
But environmentalists and some legislators say that tapping ANWR's oil would do little to reduce the United States' dependence on foreign oil.
"If we drill under every rock in the West we still can't affect the price of gas at the pump," said Melinda Pierce of the Sierra Club.
Wicker agreed ANWR's estimated reserves are not enough to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
"It's not going to make a meaningful difference in our nation's oil addiction," he said.
Wicker added that government action is needed to address the country's energy crisis, but focusing on oil is a mistake. ANWR is a distraction from improving the country's power grid and educating consumers to use less oil, he said.
Since the ban on drilling precludes an exact measurement of oil reserves in the 1002 area of ANWR, politicians must rely on estimates provided by the U.S. Geological Survey. From these estimates legislators decide whether the amount of oil in the refuge makes drilling worth the environmental risks.
The U.S. Geological Survey's 1998 petroleum assessment estimated that 7.7 billion barrels of oil are under lands of area 1002, which the government controls mineral rights. This number excludes reserves under lands that members of the Inupiat tribe own mineral rights to, and coastal waters belonging to the state of Alaska.
If federal legislation opened area 1002 for drilling, native tribes could tap their oil, and the state of Alaska could use directional-drilling technology to access oil deposits off the coast, according to USGS Geologist David Houseknecht.
These additional reserves increase the report's estimate to 10.4 billion barrels of retrievable oil under ANWR legislation.
The different estimates of both oil actually under the lands in 1002 to which the government controls the mineral rights and the additional oil that could be accessed if drilling were allowed mean lawmakers must make assessments based on estimates that vary by as much as 26 percent.
"What you see quoted on advocacy or business Web sites are either our high numbers or our low numbers," Houseknecht said about the wide variation in reported estimates.
The current restriction on drilling in ANWR does not prevent the state of Alaska from accessing oil reserves off the coast. But drilling through land is cheaper and environmentally safer than drilling in the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean, Houseknecht said.
All oil estimates are based on geological studies and are not a precise measurement of the region's oil supply. Legislators must also rely on estimates to decide how much oil is in deposits sufficiently concentrated to make drilling economically feasible. These estimates vary with the price of oil and the efficiency of drilling.
ANWR remains an emotionally charged issue. Because the debate has become obscured by politics, Wicker said no ANWR legislation will pass the Senate this session. For this reason, the details of the plan are not as crucial as they would be if the bill would actually become law, Wicker said.
Wicker described the current debate on ANWR as "a big distraction and a big waste of time."
(With reporting by Derek Sands in Washington.)
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