FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Oil companies say they're not interested in pushing for another round of exploratory work in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The question of whether oil companies would try to get permission to do exploratory work in ANWR arose because of the Bush administration's pro-drilling stance. In mid-December, a Massachusetts lawmaker who opposes ANWR development asked for an opinion on whether oil companies could explore, absent congressional approval.
''Everyone wants to know,'' said David Moulton, chief of staff to Rep. Edward Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat who posed the question to Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt.
Babbitt passed the question on to his top lawyer, Solicitor John Leshy, who said the only exploration allowed by Congress already occurred in the mid-1980s. No more can occur without approval from Congress, he said.
Leshy's opinion essentially strengthened President Bill Clinton's view by arguing that existing law wouldn't allow an incoming administration to send seismic vehicles across the tundra.
Though Sen. Ted Stevens agreed with industry spokespeople that no more seismic work is necessary, he thinks Leshy misinterpreted the law's limitation on exploration. ''He's wrong,'' the Alaska Republican said.
Sen. Frank Murkowski, when asked about Leshy's memo, relayed this response through his spokesman: ''This is only an opinion. I'm sure it will be judged for what it is, a faulty, last-minute attempt to rewrite legal history if the issue ever does arise. With an action like this, one must wonder what they are afraid that the best science may reveal about the energy potential of the Arctic coastal plain.''
Oil companies say they're not pushing for another round of exploration.
''It's not us,'' said Dawn Patience, spokeswoman for Phillips Petroleum Co. in Alaska.
''It's not an area of business focus for us,'' said Ronnie Chappell, of BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc.
Chuck Clusen, senior policy adviser to the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington and a long-time environmental lobbyist on Alaska issues, said Markey's request for clarification on the matter was a precaution. The solicitor's opinion was ''an attempt to absolutely shut the door if there was any interest by Secretary (Gale) Norton or her people to do something,'' he said.
Clusen said environmentalists feared Norton might take an approach similar to former Interior Secretary James Watt.
''He was extremely good at taking statutes and stretching them to the limit and ... essentially changing policies that had not been intended by Congress,'' he said.
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