WASHINGTON -- The House voted late Wednesday to allow oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, rejecting claims that development would devastate ''a cathedral of nature'' in need of protection.
The vote was a major victory for President Bush who in his presidential campaign and in a broad energy blueprint, called drilling in the refuge key to assuring the country's energy needs in years to come.
Protection of the refuge, which was created 41 years ago by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, emerged as the most hotly debated issue in a package of energy proposals that was expected to be approved and sent to the Senate later Wednesday night.
A call for drilling in the refuge's 1.5-million-acre coastal plain -- an area frequented by millions of migrating birds, caribou and other wildlife -- was included in the 510-page bill, and an attempt to strip it out fell short by a vote of 223-206.
The White House called the energy bill, which also would provide billions of dollars in tax breaks for energy industries, a proper balance between energy development and conservation.
But the House rejected calls for more stringent fuel efficiency requirements for popular sport utility vehicles, minivans and trucks -- a move viewed by many environmentalists as the single most effective way to curtail energy demand.
Fuel efficiency improvements for motor vehicles would save more oil each year than could be produced in the Arctic refuge, opponents of drilling in the refuge argued.
The Senate has yet to take action on energy legislation, planning to take up the energy proposals in September after the summer recess. Senate Democrats have vowed to block an attempt to open the Arctic refuge to oil companies, although the House vote will give the issue fresh momentum.
In addition to the Arctic drilling, the House bill would provide $33.5 billion in energy tax breaks and credits, most of it to promote coal, oil, nuclear and natural gas development, but also about $6 billion aimed at spurring energy conservation.
But by 269-160 vote, the lawmakers turned back a proposal that would have required sport utility vehicles to achieve a fleet average of 27.5 miles per gallon, the same as cars, by 2007. They currently have to meet only a 20.5 mpg fleet average.
Automobile fuel economy peaked at 26.5 miles per gallons in 1986, said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass. ''We've been going backward ever since. This is not rocket science. It's auto mechanics.''
It was the first time in 21 years that the House has taken up the Arctic drilling issue. In 1980, Congress declared that the coastal plain within the refuge potentially could be tapped for its oil resources, but not without a green light from Congress.
Proponents argued that with modern technology oil exploration and development can be done without environmental harm to the refuge. No more than 2,000 acres of the 1.5 million acres containing the oil would be disturbed, proponents argued.
Markey countered that the 2,000 acres would create a ''spider web'' of drilling platforms, pipelines and roads extending across the region.
The refuge ''was supposed to be drilled, explored for the American people,'' declared Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska. He chided some of the drilling opponents, many of whom, he said, had never been to the refuge in the far corner of northeastern Alaska.
''This is no ordinary land,'' shot back Rep. David Bonier, D-Mich., who said he had been there. ''It's a cathedral of nature, an American heritage. And it's our responsibility to protect it.''
The question is whether the nation will honor its heritage ''or will the big oil companies win,'' continued Bonier. Oil companies long have coveted the refuge which geologists believe contains between 5 billion and 16 billion barrels of oil, an amount that could be comparable to the Prudhoe oil fields next door.
Democrats said the House bill was tilted too heavily toward energy companies, pointing to more than $33.5 billion in tax benefits over the next decade. They said $8 of every $10 would go to coal, oil, nuclear and other energy industries.
The revenue drain could force Congress to dip into Medicare or Social Security trust funds, Democrats charged. The bill's GOP supporters disagreed.
Debate on the 510-page bill, the first broad overhaul of federal energy policy in a decade, was expected to include a showdown over drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
''This bill is a giant step forward in securing America's energy future,'' said Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La.
The House debate came days before Congress was to begin its summer recess. The action was the first legislative response to President Bush's energy blueprint released in May and to the growing concern in Congress about the nation's energy future.
The bill is ''focused on increased conservation, promoting technology, expanding the use of renewables and increasing efficiency, increasing energy exploration and promoting a clean environment,'' White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.
Critics said the bill offered little immediate relief or significant energy savings.
''This moves America backward,'' insisted Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., and is ''tilted to the energy lobby.''
Among the bill's major provisions were:
About $27 billion in tax breaks over 10 years for energy development including incentives for coal, gas and oil and nuclear energy development.
Nearly $6 billion in conservation incentives including increasing federal research into clean coal technologies.
An increase in federal spending to help low-income families pay heating and cooling bills, and make energy efficiency improvements.
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