Senate defeats bid to open ANWR to oil drilling

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday rejected a Republican energy plan that promised to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, an option that was part of an overall package to increase domestic energy development.

Instead, the Senate voted 97-1 to suspend oil deposits in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve while prices at the pump continue to climb.

Congress hopes that diverting fuel from the reserves to the open market will increase supply and therefore ease prices at the pump.

But that's not enough, warned Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who has taken the place of her fellow Alaska Republican, Sen. Ted Stevens, as the leading advocate in the Senate for drilling in ANWR.

Congress needs to focus on legislation that encourages conservation and the development of alternative energy, Murkowski said. But it could take many years for such alternatives to quench the nation's thirst for oil. Until then, there's also a need to develop domestic sources of fossil fuels, Murkowski said.

"Increasing our production is part of a comprehensive energy policy," Murkowski said. "We cannot have an energy policy that is based on 'No.'"

The amendment to halt strategic deposits, attached to an unrelated flood insurance bill, had near-unanimous support in the Senate. It was the only major energy-related proposal supported by both parties in their respective price relief plans unveiled earlier this month.

President Bush has said he doesn't support the proposal and has called for continuing to add to the strategic reserves. However, he won't veto it, said White House spokeswoman Jeanie Mamo.

The president hopes that it won't distract Congress from moving in a direction that "would actually make a difference, like opening up new domestic supply in an environmentally sensitive way in ANWR" and the outer continental shelf, Mamo said.

The House or Representatives passed a similar proposal for curtailing strategic reserves with an equally veto-proof threshold: 385-25.

The Senate Republican proposal included other provisions that would have encouraged domestic development, such as allowing Western states to bypass moratoriums on developing shale oil.

Environmentalists who have fought to keep ANWR off -limits lauded the Senate vote, saying that it "made a clear statement" that drilling there "does nothing to lower gas prices."

"It has been proven that conservation is our best solution," said Cindy Shogan, the executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League. "Now we can work together to come up with real steps toward breaking our addiction to fossil fuels."

But both Stevens and Murkowski said they didn't think that the failed GOP proposal represented a referendum on drilling in ANWR. It failed 56-42, with six Republicans joining Democrats. Some Republicans had other reasons for voting against the package, both senators said.