The US Senate today narrowly blocked a Republican plan to tap into the nation’s largest untapped reservoir of oil beneath the frozen tundra of an Alaska wildlife refuge.
Drilling supporters fell four votes short of getting the required 60 votes to avoid a Democrat-led filibuster, a procedural move to delay or derail legislation. The vote was 56-44.
Republicans had hoped to win passage by making the oil drilling issue part of a popular defence spending bill that has money for troops in Iraq and relief for Hurricane Katrina victims. Because of today’s vote, Senate leaders are expected to rework the bill to eliminate the oil-drilling proposal.
The vote was a stinging defeat for Senator Ted Stevens, a Republican who represents Alaska and has waged an intense fight for years to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He had thought this time he would finally get his wish by tying the proposal to a must-pass defence bill.
Stevens called the refuge’s oil important to national security and bemoaned repeated attempts over the years that were killed in filibusters mounted by those opposed to drilling.
Democrats accused Stevens of holding the defence bill hostage to Alaska drilling. The overall bill includes money for troops in Iraq and £16.4 billion for victims of Hurricane Katrina in the southern US.
“Our military is being held hostage by this issue, Arctic drilling,” fumed Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader. He said the Senate could move quickly to pass the defence bill once the refuge issue had been resolved.
“We all agree we want money for our troops. ... This is not about the troops,” said Senator John Kerry, a strong critic of disturbing the refuge in northeastern Alaska by oil field development.
During the vote, Stevens, 82, who had fought to open the refuge to drilling since 1980 and is the most senior Republican in the Senate, sat unsmiling in a chair midway back in the chamber, watching his colleagues vote. When it became apparent that he had lost, he briefly talked with Majority Leader Bill Frist. Then the veteran senator briefly shook his head, a signal of his disappointment.
“We need ... to open up the small area of the coastal plain (of the refuge) for oil exploration and development,” said Alaska’s other senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski. She called making the oil available a matter of national security by reducing US reliance on oil imports.
Senators determined to protect the refuge from development found it difficult to oppose the politically popular defence bill, which not only has money for troops in Iraq and hurricane relief but help for low-income families to pay energy bills.
“Destroying this wilderness will do very little to reduce energy costs, nor does it do very much for oil independence,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein.