WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans have dropped the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from their energy policy discussions, focusing instead on persuading Democrats to lift a moratorium on offshore drilling.
It's a move that has angered the longtime standard-bearer for drilling in ANWR, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who has vowed to put the issue back in front of his colleagues in the Senate.
"It's not off my table," Stevens said. "Unless you include Alaska in an energy solution, it's a non-solution."
The decision to drop the ANWR proposal comes as both the House and the Senate are considering legislation intended to respond to the rising cost of gasoline. The two chambers are considering a number of different proposals, including legislation that would clamp down on speculation in the oil commodities markets, which is suspected of forcing prices upward for consumers.
Other proposals include a push by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to have President Bush release fuel from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The government has stopped adding oil to the reserve, but advocates of releasing oil from the reserve say that wouldhelp drive down prices.
Recently, some Senate Democrats have suggested that they would be likely to support lifting the moratorium on offshore drilling. It's a shift that could lead to a compromise energy bill that satisfies Republicans who want more production, but also pleases Democrats who want it to focus on conservation and tax breaks for alternative and renewable energy proposals.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she was "disappointed" that fellow Republicans won't be pushing ANWR as they press forward with energy legislation to address high gasoline prices. Like Stevens, she'll be looking for ways to add ANWR in an amendment.
"Anything that we do when it comes to energy legislation, if it's going to pass this Senate and Congress, it must be bipartisan," she said. "ANWR is, of course, controversial, and they're looking for things that are noncontroversial. Well, if we could find something noncontroversial, we'd pass it tomorrow."
But Murkowski also said she favors a balanced energy bill that includes production, conservation and research into renewable and alternative fuels. And if the Senate comes up with a compromise bill that includes offshore drilling and some of those other goals, she would consider supporting it.
"I'm not going to say I can't do this because ANWR is not a piece of the solution," Murkowski said. "I've got to look at what is we're trying to advance. But on the same hand, I'm not going to suggest we should continue to hold back on ANWR."
Senate Republican leaders say they remain supportive of drilling in ANWR, but that now is not the time when both parties are looking for a compromise that will help consumers. Democrats have told them that any energy package with ANWR in it pegs them as unwilling to compromise, and that they simply won't consider it, said Don Stewart, a spokesman for the Republican minority leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
"It's something the Democrats have said they cannot do," Stewart said.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain also does not support drilling in ANWR, but has warmed up to offshore drilling.
It's a far different matter in the House, where U.S. Rep. Don Young has separate bill calling for drilling in ANWR. He has the support of top Republicans who consider ANWR "a big component of a broad, comprehensive strategy," said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for the House minority leader, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Later this month, Boehner will be leading a group of first-term House Republicans on an energy field trip to a renewable energy lab in Colorado and to ANWR.
"We will use every opportunity at our disposal to force a vote on ANWR and get Democrats on record as anti-American energy production," Smith said.
Young this week criticized Pelosi's proposal to release supplies from the strategic reserves and criticized the Democratic leadership for doing "everything it can to throw obstacles in the way of producing oil and gas from these vast, potentially energy-rich areas."
"It’s time for Speaker Pelosi to stop trying to put tissue paper on hemorrhages and start producing a real solution for the American people," he said.
Young's ANWR legislation, which puts some profits from production into renewable resource research, has 167 co-sponsors. Of those, three are Democrats.