New national storm brews over opening ANWR to exploration

Posted: Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Is the trans-Alaska oil pipeline half full or half empty?

No matter your point of view on the subject, another storm is brewing over the ability to drill for oil on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Alaskans need to be prepared to face it.

Republican leaders are offering up those ''stars in alignment'' visions again, but the storm clouds will have to clear before we see the starry skies. We hear thunder, and we're just counting the seconds to see when this one will hit.

A little rumble and flash arose ... with federal approval for the next 30 years of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline right-of-way. The event set the stage for Interior Secretary Gale Norton to draw that connection between ANWR and filling up our half-empty pipeline. ''Our national security situation continues to demonstrate that we need to have American oil available to us,'' Norton said. ''With that in mind, we believe our message to Congress about the need for ANWR will be successful.''

Drilling in the refuge naturally rose as a priority among Republican lawmakers as they settled into Congress. Some press reports quoted our newest Sen. Lisa Murkowski making her intentions to follow the elder Murkowski's lead succinctly clear. ''Open it up,'' she said.

But slam dunks in national politics are about as common as pheasants and turkeys in Juneau; you're going to have to go some distance to hunt one up.

Several years ago, a Republican-controlled Congress skirted filibuster threats and passed the drilling provision as part of a spending bill, but President Bill Clinton vetoed the legislation -- as he had promised. Clinton's promise likely took a lot of pressure off congressmen who might have struggled harder with the issue at that time.

This time the GOP has a hold on Congress under a Republican president who has said he sees ANWR oil as a hedge against foreign oil dependence. This time the Democrats have two potential presidential candidates, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who have promised to filibuster legislation that would open ANWR. Republicans failed to pass ANWR legislation on a 54-46 vote last year, and still only hold a 51-49 majority in the Senate, so a majority vote of 60 to end a filibuster by means of cloture probably is not likely.

So, some analysts have predicted, ANWR likely will come to light as part of another spending bill. Tacking an ANWR drilling amendment to legislation approving the federal budget would require a simple majority of 51 votes. But the federal budget is set to be a hotly contested subject in Washington this year and no doubt there will be many political deals to be made over its contents and other tack-on issues--from President Bush's tax cut plan to Medicare changes to welfare reform. The stage will be set for an all-out fight that likely would have Democrats and Republi-cans crossing ranks on the ANWR issue. Maybe it will even set the stage for a real nail-biter with Vice President Dick Cheney casting a tiebreaker.

Alaskans have seen the ANWR storm clouds come and go so many times over the years they may feel a little jaded on the topic, but this is an issue with grand implications for this great state and the time has come again to make sure our voices are heard above those East Coast winds.

Otherwise our pipeline could stand half empty, or half full, for the next 30 years.

-- Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

Jan. 12

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