ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Republicans retake control of the U.S. Senate Tuesday and some analysts say that means Congress is more likely to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
John Katz, outgoing director of the governor's Washington office, says the stars are in alignment like never before.
''I think this is the best opportunity we've ever had,'' said Katz. ''But it's by no means a foregone conclusion, even now.''
Last year, the House passed a bill that would allow drilling in the refuge, but the Senate did not. Alaska's senators fell 14 votes short of the 60 they needed to break a filibuster and bring the question to a vote.
The House is likely to pass an ANWR bill again this year, assuming most members vote as they have in the past.
The outlook in the Senate is uncertain, but Republican control of the Senate gives the pro-drilling side more tactical options.
They may try once more to pass ANWR as part of a giant national energy bill, but supporters may also insert it into a bill that requires only 50 votes to pass it rather than the supermajority required to move most Senate legislation.
A likely vehicle is a measure called the budget reconciliation bill. Unlike other Senate bills, it cannot be held up by filibuster.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., one of the most prominent opponents of drilling in the refuge, has vowed to oppose the use of ''legislative back channels'' to open the refuge.
But the strategy worked in 1995, when a reconciliation bill that included ANWR development passed in Congress. President Clinton later vetoed it.
Cindy Shogun, director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said she doesn't believe the Senate will pass an ANWR drilling bill.
''The American public wants to protect the refuge,'' she said, citing a November New York Times poll that showed 55 percent of respondents disapprove of the effort to drill there. ''We just have to make sure that everyone understands the issue.''
Some environmentalists say last year's Senate vote on ANWR -- actually, on a procedural motion to bring the issue to a vote -- shows drilling supporters don't have even the 50 votes they would need to open the refuge.
In April, only 46 senators voted with the pro-drilling side, which included most Republicans. They picked up a couple of votes in the November elections, which still would leave it short of an obvious majority.
But Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens has said the April vote wasn't the true measure of the Senate's support for ANWR drilling. Other senators would have voted for it, he said, but they saw the measure was going to fall short of 60 anyway, so they didn't stick their necks out.
Myron Ebell, an energy expert at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, said he thinks that Stevens is right and that at least 50 senators support drilling in ANWR.
''If they put it on the budget reconciliation bill, I don't see how they can fail,'' he said.
But Ebell said he is reluctant to make predictions of ANWR drilling's success because he confidently predicted the last Congress would pass it.
This year, he warned against assuming Republicans will achieve their agenda just because they control the House, the Senate and the White House.
''Republicans are extremely good at not being able to accomplish things when they have the chance,'' said Ebell, a Republican himself.
Stevens and Gov. Frank Murkowski have described the new majority leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee, as a solid vote for ANWR drilling.
Ebell, though, said Frist isn't keenly interested in energy and may want to avoid big controversies.
''I'm afraid he may say, 'Let's avoid these hard votes that anger the environmentalists and that allow the Democrats to score points against us,' '' Ebell said.
On the other hand, Ebell acknowledged, Frist is a very close ally of President Bush, who made ANWR drilling a central part of his 2001 energy plan.
The coastal plain of the Arctic refuge is believed to be the nation's best onshore oil prospect. A 1998 study found it could contain as much as 16 billion barrels, with a mean of 10.4 billion barrels.
This year, the debate over whether to tap those reserves will play out against an international backdrop that includes political upheaval in oil-rich Venezuela and impending war with Iraq.
''With the world geopolitical situation the way it is, more and more people are understanding the importance of domestic oil production,'' said Katz, of the governor's office.
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