US defense bill may be used for Alaska drilling

By Tom Doggett and Chris Baltimore

WASHINGTON, Sept 21 (Reuters) - An Oklahoma senator has threatened to add language next week to a multi-billion-dollar defense spending bill to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a way to secure future U.S. oil supplies.

The Republican-backed proposal to drill in the pristine wilderness has received new attention following last week's deadly attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Supporters of opening the refuge contend U.S. oil supplies from the Mideast are at risk and the Alaska wilderness may hold enough crude to replace the amount of oil imported from Iraq at current rates for the next 70 years.

Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, said he would proceed with his plan to add drilling language to a U.S. defense bill if the Senate did not agree to debate a broad energy package before lawmakers adjourn in a few weeks.

"He reserved the right to call up an amendment if that did not take place," an Inhofe spokesman said on Friday.

"The senator has the concern that Congress should address the issue of energy policy somehow this year," the spokesman added. "It is important to our military readiness and national security."


President George W. Bush, a former Texas oilman, has long backed the idea of drilling in the refuge on Alaska's northern coast. And in recent weeks, the proposal has picked up momentum thanks to lobbying efforts by the Teamsters union, which is eager to see new jobs created.

The White House claims only 2,000 acres (810 hectares) of the refuge's 19 million acres (7.7 million hectares) would be directly affected by drilling equipment at any one time, although Republicans want to open a total of 1.5 million acres (607,500 hectares) to exploration.

Environmental groups oppose opening the refuge, arguing drilling would jeopardize a wilderness area that is home to polar bears, caribou and other wildlife. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service describes the refuge as "one of the finest examples of wildernesses left on the planet" and one of the places least affected by modern man.

Green groups contend that stricter fuel efficiency standards on sport utility vehicles, pick-ups and cars would offset any need for more Alaska oil.

The National Wildlife Federation called Inhofe's move an "appalling maneuver" as the country's prepares to go to war.

"Giving oil companies a green light to drill a national treasure has nothing to do with addressing the crisis at hand," the group said.


Imhofe said last week's attacks, which left more than 6,000 people missing and feared dead, add even more urgency to drilling in the wildlife refuge.

Because the U.S. military relies on energy supplies to carry out its duties, an energy package, "is a critical national security concern that we have to address," Imhofe's spokesman said.

Oil industry experts have said it would take about five years for any significant oil production to start flowing from the refuge, if Congress approved drilling there.

The amendment being considered by Inhofe would actually be one of two broad energy bills that contain provisions to give oil companies access to the refuge.

Inhofe said he could seek to add to the $345 billion defense spending bill a comprehensive energy bill approved by the House of Representatives last month to allow drilling in the Alaska refuge.

Or, the senator could tack on an energy bill introduced earlier this year by Alaska Senator Frank Murkowski that would also open the refuge. Murkowski, a Republican, is the biggest Senate backer of drilling in the refuge.

But Murkowski said earlier this week he opposed adding energy language to the defense spending bill and the contentious drilling issue should be debated in energy legislation being considered by the Senate Energy Committee.

The bill before that panel would not allow drilling in the refuge, but Murkowski plans to offer language to legislation to open the wilderness area.

Murkowksi said it would be in "poor taste" to use last week's attacks as an opportunity to open the refuge through the defense spending bill.

The Senate energy panel plans to resume debate on its bill in early October. Congress is tentatively set to adjourn in late October.

18:23 09-21-01

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