ANCHORAGE (AP) -- U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens says opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration will be his top priority when Congress reconvenes next month.
''That's our job this year -- to see if we can get that done,'' Stevens told the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce Monday.
In a wide-ranging speech, Stevens touched on a range of topics. But he devoted most of his remarks to his plans once he returns to Congress.
Stevens criticized environmental groups for blocking development.
''There are many among us who would make us believe that the world is falling apart and we've not been doing our job to protect our national heritage. We still have a lot to do, but I think these groups exaggerate the challenges we face as a state and a nation,'' he said.
Stevens conceded that opening the Arctic refuge would be a tough fight, and he refused to discuss his strategy.
''I'm not going to talk about it publicly until I've got it worked out,'' he said.
On natural gas, he said that a proposed $20 billion pipeline from the North Slope to the Lower 48 should go forward. The companies that own Alaska's gas say the project is not economic. Federal energy legislation to subsidize the project collapsed earlier this year. Stevens did not say what he would do to make it work.
The key goal of the Alaska delegation this year, Stevens said, is money for Alaska transportation projects. He is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. U.S. Rep. Don Young heads the House Transportation Committee.
''Our focus is to modernize our state with regard to transportation,'' Stevens said.
For instance, he said he intends to place money in the budget to start a ferry across Knik Arm to Point MacKenzie, which would be ultimately replaced with a bridge.
''(The ferry) will increase the demand and demonstrate the need for the bridge if we are successful with the ferry,'' Stevens said. ''That would be a real tourist loop.''
He said he also wants a crossing over Turnagain Arm.
Asked if there is federal money for Murkowski's plans to extend the Alaska Railroad to Canada and to distant parts of Alaska, Stevens said the state must act first.
''It's going to take an initiative from the state to go further. That's one of Frank's goals. I'll stick with him. But it's not something we can start in Washington because it's a state-owned railroad,'' he said.
Can war be averted in Iraq? ''Yes. I think clearly. And I think that's what the president is trying to get to. I believe the president has been shaking the cage and trying to make everybody understand what's inside that cage,'' Stevens said. ''You have to be willing to go to the brink of war to get to that point.''
Stevens would not comment on who Murkowski should name as his successor in the Senate. He said:
''Frank and I have been together for 22 years. He's been a wonderful partner and friend. But I think he's gotten tired of me telling him what to do.''
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