ANWR Drilling proponents celebrate, opponents regroup

Posted: Friday, April 19, 2002

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) -- Opponents of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge prepared for a celebration at a downtown bar Thursday after the Senate soundly defeated proposals to open the refuge.

But supporters of ANWR drilling vowed that they weren't giving up their fight.

''We are not blinking an eye. We are going to move forward and take it one step at a time,'' said Brenda Itta-Lee of Arctic Slope Regional Corp., the Alaska Native corporation representing the Inupiat Eskimos who live on Alaska's North Slope.

The Senate failed to break a Democratic filibuster on a measure to include the refuge drilling provision in a broader energy bill.

It was just the latest skirmish in a nearly two-decades-old battle over opening the coastal plain of the 19 million acre Arctic refuge to oil development.

Geologists with the federal government have estimated that as much as 11 billion barrels of oil might lie beneath the coastal plain. But environmentalists have argued drilling would irreparably harm wildlife in the refuge, including caribou and polar bears.

''People are definitely feeling that this is a tremendous victory,'' said Nicole Whittington-Evans, assistant regional director of The Wilderness Society.

Luci Beach, a Gwich'in Indian who heads the Gwich'in Steering Committee, traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby against drilling. She spent much of Thursday on the phone, thanking those who supported her efforts.

''I'm feeling very good that the land we consider to be sacred is safe,'' she said. But she said the refuge is safe ''only for a little while.''

''It seems like there's a constant threat to the refuge. It won't be safe until we achieve our goal of permanent wilderness protection,'' Beach said.

Drilling proponents were holding out hope that an ANWR measure could be introduced again later this year. The U.S. House approved an energy bill last August that would allow oil development in the refuge. If an energy bill is eventually approved by the Senate, the issue could come up again in a conference committee.

The continuing conflict in the Middle East could change some votes by the time a conference committee takes up the issue, said Kim Duke, executive director of Arctic Power, the state-funded group that has lobbied in favor of drilling.

''The national security issue is only going to grow in importance. I think the situation in the Middle East is not getting any better and it really puts a spotlight on where we're getting our oil,'' Duke said. ''It doesn't mean the fight is over by any means.''

Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles issued a statement saying he shared the disappointment of most Alaskans. Surveys in recent years have found that about 70 percent of Alaskans support drilling in the refuge.

Knowles said he would continue to promote responsible development of ANWR, but he acknowledged it is an uphill fight.

''To me it's not a question of if but when we'll be permitted to develop this important national resource,'' Knowles said.

Drilling proponents have found themselves in a similar position before. In 1995 Congress included a measure in a budget bill to open ANWR to drilling, but it was vetoed by President Clinton.

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