WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Senate is scheduled to vote Thursday on a proposal that would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain to oil drilling.
The provision is part of a Republican budget plan that includes $1.2 billion in projected leasing revenues from ANWR over the next five years.
Supporters and critics squared off Wednesday at a hearing held by Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee who wrote the legislation.
Sen. William Roth, R-Del., a leading opponent, wants to make the coastal plain a designated wilderness area.
''We can afford to forego this monetary revenue. But we can't afford not to protect this Arctic Eden,'' Roth said.
Supporters said opening the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain would result in national energy security. But critics said drilling would do little to satisfy the country's thirst for oil. At the same time, they said it would harm the migrating porcupine caribou herd, which calves on the coastal plain and is a key source of food for Athabaskans living in Alaska and Canada.
The Clinton administration has said it is strongly opposed to developing the refuge.
''The Arctic refuge is a one-of-a-kind natural resource. It's an intact ecosystem that's irreplaceable. It should not be disturbed,'' Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes said.
Several witnesses, led by Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, were on hand Wednesday to support development. Knowles said it is crucial to begin exploration and development in the refuge because of tight oil supplies and high gasoline prices.
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