WASHINGTON — Hoping to capitalize on consumer concern about gasoline prices, Alaska's two Republican senators introduced legislation Thursday that would allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge if the price of oil hits $125 a barrel.
With oil hovering near $110 a barrel and gasoline expected to reach $4 a gallon, Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Ted Stevens said that they hoped the continuing price spiral would spark consumer clamor and overcome opposition to opening the wildlife refuge to drilling.
"This has got to come from the ground up," Murkowski said. "From the constituents, from the American consumer saying 'Enough, Congress.' This is the No. 1 issue domestically in the country right now, what is happening with the price of energy."
Efforts to open up the refuge for drilling have had a long and storied history in Congress, with Stevens or Murkowski (or her father) offering up some form of legislation annually. In 2005, when Congress rejected yet another bid to open the refuge to development, Stevens called it the "saddest day of my life."
This year's proposal has a few new twists that Murkowski, the lead sponsor, says might help persuade some former skeptics.
After the state of Alaska gets a cut of the 12.5 percent royalties, 50 percent of the proceeds would go toward alternative energy research overseen by the Department of Energy. Another 33 percent would go toward federal low-income home energy assistance or weatherization programs. The final 17 percent would go toward the food stamp program.
Drilling in ANWR would do more than any economic stimulus package, Stevens said. It also would trim U.S. dependency on foreign sources of oil.
"The money we send overseas for oil could be spent in the United States, stimulate our economy," he said. "I think this country's going to need a real stimulus before this year's over."
The Bush Administration also sees the development of ANWR as a national security issue and continues to support the "environmentally responsible production of energy" from the refuge, said Shane Wolfe, a spokesman for Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.
The Interior Department hasn't seen the legislation and wouldn't comment on it, but the president's 2009 budget assumes that ANWR would open for development, Wolfe said.
If drilling were to be allowed, the first lease sales in 2010 could bring in as much as $9 billion, Wolfe said.
"The coastal plain of ANWR is the nation's single greatest onshore prospect for future oil," he said.
But environmentalists say they're confident that Murkowski and Stevens simply don't have 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a filibuster that would allow the bill to be heard. It's equally unlikely that a Democratic-led House of Representatives would even consider hearing the legislation, said Myke Bybee, a spokesman for the Sierra Club.
Environmentalists also have a proven track record at rallying national opposition to drilling in the refuge and could mobilize their forces with a simple e-mail campaign. They're confident that outside of Alaska, there simply isn't public support for drilling in ANWR, Bybee said.
"No amount of oil and no amount of money is worth despoiling the Arctic Refuge," Bybee said. "I don't think there's support for opening up a special place like the Arctic Refuge at any cost, at any amount of oil or at any cost of oil."
Drilling in ANWR is "not going to be help anyone at the pump," said Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League. "The consumer is not that naive."
It's an interesting tactic to tie the present-day price of oil to the decision whether to drill, said Frank Verrastro, senior fellow and energy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C. But even if Congress were to sign off on opening ANWR to development today, it would have little to do with the price a decade from now.
"You're talking eight to ten years," Verrastro said. "And during that time maybe we would have lost some production, maybe demand would have gone down because of sustained higher prices."