WASHINGTON -- Citing the public outcry over $3-a-gallon gasoline and America's heavy reliance on foreign oil, the House yesterday voted to open an Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling, knowing the prospects for Senate approval were slim.
Proponents of drilling argued that the refuge on Alaska's North Slope would provide 1 million barrels a day of additional domestic oil at peak production and reduce the need for imports.
But environmentalists argue the refuge is a pristine area where drilling will harm caribou, polar bears, and migratory birds, and opponents of the proposal said Congress should pursue conservation and alternative energy sources that would save more oil than would be tapped from the refuge.
The House voted, 225-201, to direct the Interior Department to open oil leases on the coastal strip of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- an area of 1.5 million acres that is thought to hold about 11 billion barrels of recoverable oil.
But the action may be little more than symbolic. Arctic refuge development, while approved by the House five times, repeatedly has been blocked in the Senate, where drilling proponents have been unable to muster the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
``We need to develop energy here at home. . . . We can't say no to everything," declared US Representative Richard Pombo, a California Republican who pressed for a House vote on opening the refuge, which lies east of the declining Prudhoe Bay oil fields 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
All the New England lawmakers who were present voted against the measure.
Access to oil from the Arctic wildlife refuge has been a key part of President Bush's energy agenda, although over the last five years he has been unable to convince Congress of its merits. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman urged the Senate yesterday to pass a drilling measure ``so we can strengthen our nation's energy security."
The refuge was set aside for protection in 1960 and expanded by Congress to 19 million acres in 1980 with a stipulation that its oil -- limited to the coastal strip -- could be developed, but only if Congress allows it.
The federal government would share revenues equally with the state.
While oil companies have long eyed the area, where federal geologists estimate anywhere from 5.4 billion to as much as 16 billion barrels of oil may be recoverable, environmentalists assert it should be among the nation's top priorities for protection.
``There are simply some places that should be off limits to drilling. The Arctic refuge should be one of them," said Representative Lois Capps, a California Democrat.
The coastal strip is a calving area for caribou, home to polar bears and musk oxen, and a seasonal destination for millions of migratory birds.
Drilling opponents cited an Energy Department analysis that oil from the refuge would have little impact on gasoline prices and would reduce imports by only a few percentage points. Currently 60 percent of the 21 million barrels of oil used daily in the United States comes from imports.