ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- Interior Secretary Gale Norton is describing her trip to Alaska and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a ''fact-finding mission'' she hopes will ease the fight in Washington over whether to open the refuge to oil development.
Norton was warmly received Friday at a luncheon attended by people eager to see the coastal plain of the refuge drilled for oil. She said a fierce battle is being waged over the issue inside the Washington Beltway. But, she said, both sides want to see the environment protected and the economy grow.
''I think there is some common ground,'' Norton said.
Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, is leading the trip that will include tours of two oil facilities and a stop at Kaktovik, the only village in the refuge. Residents there strongly support oil development.
Murkowski introduced Norton as a ''lifelong conservationist'' who brings ''common sense solutions'' to environmental challenges.
''I can't tell you how pleased we are to have you up here,'' Murkowski said.
Norton used the opportunity to reinforce her willingness to drill for oil in the refuge if Congress approves the move.
''We have learned from the Exxon Valdez,'' Norton said, referring to the 1989 accident that spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. ''I am confident with new technologies ... we can work together and develop resources and protect the valuable wildlife habitat.''
Proponents say the refuge could hold as much as 16 billion barrels of recoverable oil, more than Prudhoe Bay.
But President Bush indicated Thursday that he may not be able to persuade Congress to open the refuge to oil and gas development.
''I think it's important for us to open up ANWR. Whether or not the Congress sees it that way is another matter,'' Bush said at a news conference.
Norton said she also wants to learn more about the North Slope's natural gas reserves, given increased demand and rising costs.
Two Democratic senators are joining Murkowski and Norton on the trip: Mark Dayton of Minnesota and Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Murkowski is chairman of that committee. White House counselor Mary Matlin also joined the group.
Six senators had said they would make the trip. But three, Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, George Allen of Virginia and Wayne Allard of Colorodo canceled, all saying it was for personal reasons.
Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, said he was gratified to see that the two remaining senators were making the trip even though one had said he was opposed to drilling in the refuge and the other was undecided. Dayton said during his campaign last year he did not support opening ANWR to drilling.
Knowles said he hoped the two would learn more about new, environmentally-friendly drilling techniques. The group is scheduled to stop at Alpine, a Phillips Alaska project that uses horizontal drilling to tap oil far from the drill pad and thus requires less surface disturbance.
''I think information is our friend in the discussion of development of oil and gas,'' Knowles said.
Later, about 200 protestors gathered at the entrance of the University of Alaska Fairbanks museum waiting for Norton's arrival.
Most of the crowd carried signs in favor of protecting ANWR, chanting ''Keep it wild.''
Their chants were returned with other protestors chanting, ''ANWR now!''
Kathy Sikorski, a language revitalization teacher at the university and a Gwichin Native, said she had very personal reasons for wanting ANWR left untouched.
''That is where all my ancestors are buried,'' she said. ''I think it is important all of ANWR be protected.''
Don Lowry, 42, of North Pole, said he's worked as a mechanic for 12 years on the pipeline at Prudhoe Bay. He was holding a sign that said, ''ANWR great for all Alaskans.''
''I think Alaska needs jobs. There are a lot of people out of work,'' he said. ''Sure, there's pipe but you go up there and there are caribou...The caribou are everywhere. You have to stop to let them cross the road.''
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