GOP control means ANWR drilling becomes possible

Posted: Friday, November 08, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska is in line to see substantial gains from the Republican takeover of the Senate, following Tuesday's elections.

The change restores Sen. Ted Stevens to chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and it gives advocates of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge what may be their best opportunity to open the refuge to drilling.

One irony is that the state's junior senator, Gov.-elect Frank Murkowski, will not be at the helm of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to help make that happen.

Because of Murkowski's victory in the gubernatorial race, he will resign his seat in December -- and his opportunity to reclaim the gavel from Democratic chairman Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico. Instead, Murkowski will appoint a fellow Republican to fill the remaining two years of his Senate term, and that person will be at the bottom of the Senate seniority ladder.

Rep. Don Young, was easily re-elected Tuesday. He returns in a senior leadership role, continuing as the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, where he will direct the production of massive highway and water project bills. Young, who turns 70 next year, will be in his 16th term.

Sen. Stevens, who turns 79 on Nov. 18, will be the most senior Republican in the Senate because of the retirement of Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C. That distinction makes Stevens the Senate president pro tempore, who presides over the Senate -- or, more typically, assigns that task to others on a rotation.

Stevens will have other tasks with his new title. The Senate president pro tempore is an ex officio member of the Republican Policy Committee, appoints members of various national commissions, names the director of the Congressional Budget Office and, in the absence of the vice president, can sign legislation.

On the immediate horizon, Stevens also may have to shoulder a larger share of the work advocating for the opening of the Arctic refuge until his new, unnamed colleague gets some time under his or her belt. The refuge's coastal plain is believed to hold billions of barrels of undiscovered oil, but drilling for it also is the most controversial environmental issue before Congress.

The House and Senate were never able to reach agreement on a compromise energy bill this fall, and with the change in leadership, Congress will now drop the issue until the next session, when it will start anew.

David Woodruff, Republican spokesman on the Senate Energy Committee, said he thinks the Republican victory Tuesday in reclaiming control of the Senate virtually ensures that the panel will approve drilling in the refuge as part of its energy plan.

Pete Rafle of The Wilderness Society cautioned, however, that the battle over Arctic drilling is hardly over just because a couple more Republicans will be serving in the Senate next year.

''Republicans would like to make drilling front and center again,'' he said. ''But the conservation community is preparing to mount a defense of the refuge no less determined than this year. The balance of power in the Senate may have changed, but the basic equation in the energy debate hasn't. We still cannot drill our way to energy independence.''

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