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Murkowski sends bill to drill oil in Arctic

WASHINGTON - Labeled as a balanced energy package, legislation that includes opening certain parts of Alaska's Coastal Plain to oil exploration was introduced in the U.S. Senate.

Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. John Breaux, D-La., introduced the legislation Feb. 26 under the title of the National Energy Security Act of 2001.

Article V of the bill allows the secretary of Interior to "implement a competitive oil and gas leasing program that will result in an environmentally sound program for the exploration, development, and production of the oil and gas resources," in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Recent and forecast energy deficiencies and dependency on foreign oil prompted a comprehensive bill that deals with alternative forms of energy, yet does place an emphasis on the exploration and production of domestic crude oil.

"It is going to take a team effort to solve this problem. We can't afford to leave our best players on the bench. That means it is necessary to responsibly open certain parts of Alaska's Coastal Plain, our nation's best hope for new domestic exploration. It can be done in an environmentally thoughtful and careful manner and it can replace the oil we buy from Saudi Arabia for the next 30 years," Murkowski said.

Exploring for oil in ANWR does not please environmental groups and many of Alaska's Native tribes have gone on record in opposition to this move. President George W. Bush's campaign included opening ANWR to oil drilling as an issue. This new legislation was introduced the day before President Bush addressed Congress concerning his budget.

The Gwich'in Athabascan people from 15 remote villages on the North Slope issued new calls for international support to prohibit new drilling. "The caribou is not just what we eat, it is who we are," said Sarah James, a community activist and member of the Gwich'in Steering Committee of Arctic Village.

"Our people and the caribou must not be sacrificed for the equivalent of less than a six-months supply of oil."

Before the 45,000 acres will be closed to drilling, the bill requires consultation with the city of Kaktovik, the North Slope Borough and the state of Alaska.

Alaska Natives who oppose the ANWR exploration are joined by environmental groups across the country.

"The vast majority of Americans oppose drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We believe the majority of members of Congress oppose drilling in the refuge, and the national environmental community will do anything it can to prevent this legislation from gaining any traction," said Adam Kolton, spokesman for the Alaska Wilderness League. He added that using fuel prices as a reason to drill in ANWR is a "smokescreen for gaining access to the refuge."

The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission would support the drilling - with conditions. The commission represents nine Alaska Native Villages. At a recent meeting, by resolution, the commission agreed to support the exploration on condition a moratorium be placed on any further offshore oil exploration and development.

The whaling commission argues that offshore exploration encroaches on the migratory path of the bowhead whale and traditional, cultural hunts are impaired. BP Northstar oil development currently explores in the Beaufort Sea.

The area that could be explored is known as the 1002 Area. Within that area, the secretary of Interior would be authorized to close, as special areas, 45,000 acres to leasing. However, a provision allows horizontal drilling to take place under the surface of the special areas with rigs in permitted exploration locations, the bill states.

It dictates that in the first lease sale, the acreage must be no less than 200,000 acres or more than 300,000 acres. In subsequent lease sales the acreage will be 200,000. Each lease tract will not exceed 5,760 acres and be for a period of 10 years.

The all-encompassing bill also promotes alternative fuel vehicles, extends tax credits for flexible fuel and electric vehicles through 2008, encourages increased production of traditional sources of energy but seeks to develop cleaner technology for the sources, such as coal.

Our legislation provides incentives to increase oil and gas production, which, in turn, will help create jobs and lower energy costs. And providing another $1 billion for the nation's Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program will help many more Americans pay the high cost of heating or cooling their homes," Sen. Breaux said.