Litmus Test

Environmentalists are livid about a US House of Representatives energy bill that would open the coastal plain of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.

Environmentalists are livid about a US House of Representatives energy bill that would open the coastal plain of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.

"Drilling in the arctic refuge is the most flagrant example of the Republican leadership and the Bush administration's attempts to reward the oil industry for its support," said Jim Waltman, director of refuges and wildlife for the Wilderness Society.

Throughout the spirited debate over the issue, ANWR drilling opponents in the House warned colleagues that a vote for ANWR development would be remembered by their constituents in the next election cycle.

"This will be the most important environmental vote you make this Congress," said Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). He and Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) led the fight to take ANWR out of the bill, HR 4.

Green vote

But is ANWR really a litmus test for the green vote?

Roger Herrera, the Washington representative for the grassroots group Arctic Power, says no.

The House voted 223-206 to keep ANWR in a larger Republican energy package. That's not a wide margin, but it's not as narrow as opponents of drilling predicted would happen.

Herrera also says ANWR is the one issue that nearly every environmental group, whether they are mainstream or activist in nature, agree upon. But with so many other environmental issues, such as clean water and climate change, in focus these days, it may be hard to gain broad support for all those issues at once.

"Their worst nightmare has come to pass with so many environmental issues on the table. They can't keep up with it all, and it is easy to be blindsided," Herrera said.

Senate battle

Green groups vehemently disagree, and predict the ANWR provision stands no chance of passing in the Democratic-led Senate.

But ANWR supporters say anything is, and can be, possible, especially given the complex parliamentary rules of the Senate. Some senators from Northeastern states are threatening to talk the energy bill to death through a filibuster if ANWR stays in the bill. But the rules of the Senate encourage compromise, and by the time the energy bill reaches the Senate floor this fall, it may not be politically smart for the Democratic leadership to hold up the bill over one provision, ANWR drilling supporters say.

Herrera won't reveal his group's game plan to win over the Senate.

Still, there is a lot of speculation among other energy lobbyists in Washington on what could happen. Approval of ANWR could be used as a bargaining chip to secure from the White House a promise to regulate carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, for example. Or lawmakers could agree to ANWR and in exchange abandon the nearly $8 billion in new oil production tax incentives in the bill that have been harshly criticized by the environmental community. Or another scenario could be that the filibuster threats work. That could leave President George W. Bush with a more modest energy bill that has bipartisan support. Such a bill might include new research and development programs to boost energy efficiency, targeted fixes to federal reformulated gasoline programs, and a modest increase in fuel economy standards for cars and sport utility vehicles.

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