WASHINGTON -- With much of the public debate over drilling on public lands centered on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, western conservationists fear that a national energy policy now being developed will strip protections from 300 million acres of public lands in the lower 48 states.
The Senate is scheduled to begin debate this week on a Democratic energy bill that was introduced in response to a bill adopted last year by the GOP-held House that mirrored President Bush's energy plan.
One element in the energy debate centers on drawing oil, coal and natural gas from publicly owned lands, such as national forests and monuments, most of which are in the West.
Demand for a national energy policy has ensured that Congress will battle this year over how those millions of acres of public land should be managed. Some want to bar all new drilling. Others say some drilling, with strict oversight, is fine. Others want to eliminate most regulation over drilling on public land.
The Bush plan, which would open ANWR and require the interior secretary to draw up a complete inventory of the pockets of gas and oil believed to be under federal land, was cribbed into a bill adopted by the Republican-controlled House in an Aug. 1 vote.
It also would review -- and potentially weaken -- what Republicans see as unneeded barriers to oil and gas leases on those public lands.
''The U.S. Senate and the American people have waited long enough for action on energy policy,'' said Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Thomas' home state is one of the several Western states where policy and reality will meet. Wyoming has pristine wilderness areas, such as the 623,000 acres of badlands known as the Red Desert, and major coal and gas fields, including the 8 million-acre Powder River Basin.
Thomas is one of the promoters of the Republican energy bill adopted in the House. He said it will create a national energy policy that will ensure an ''at-home'' source of cheap energy by expanding production on public lands and reducing U.S. reliance on Persian Gulf nations for crude oil.
''It is now a matter of economic and domestic security,'' Thomas said.
Opponents of the GOP House bill say it would strip away whatever protection is left shielding open lands from oil and gas drilling rigs that crowd wildlife, pollute the air and spoil precious water.
Terrence Kardong, who analyzes energy policy for the Dakota Resource Council, a conservation group in the Dakotas, said the Republican plan offers nothing but a short-term solution because it relies on fossil fuels and comes at a steep environmental price.
''There's just lots of stuff in there that's really bad,'' Kardong said. ''Rolling back the Clean Air Act, all sorts of stuff.''
However, the environmental lobby has not liked everything it has seen in the Democratic bill, which was developed by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., chairman of the Energy Committee, at the request of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.
''We're not satisfied at all with Daschle's bill,'' Kardong said. ''But it's an improvement over what the Republicans have.''
A coalition of lobbying groups, including the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Natural Resources Defense Council and The Wilderness Society, have been pressing for changes in the Democratic bill, fearing provisions that would encourage drilling on public lands by lowering royalties and speeding up environmental studies.
Aides to Bingaman insist that the lands in question are already being mined and drilled for oil, gas and coal, and that the bill will not weaken environmental oversight.
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