The Senate voted yesterday in favor of opening part of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, a long-sought goal of the Bush administration.

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WASHINGTON — The Senate voted yesterday in favor of opening part of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, bringing a long-sought goal of the Bush administration within striking distance of being realized.

It was the first time the Senate has signaled its support for drilling in the ecologically sensitive area since President Bush took office. And while hurdles remain, drilling advocates said they were close to achieving their decadeslong drive to tap billions of barrels of oil beneath the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain.

Voting 51-49, the Republican-controlled Senate rejected an effort by Democrats and some moderate Republicans to strip a provision from the Senate budget resolution that would allow drilling in the refuge. The vote gave a big victory to Bush and helped clear the way for broader energy legislation that he seeks.

The budget provision would permit any refuge-drilling legislation later this year to be approved by a simple 51-vote Senate majority. It would prevent opponents from using Senate rules, as they have in the past, to require a 60-vote supermajority on the question. Still, several legislative obstacles remain.

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Opposition to drilling in the wildlife refuge was led by Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. Cantwell and Sen. Patty Murray, also D-Wash., voted to remove the drilling provision from the budget.

At issue is the 1.5 million-acre coastal-plain region of the 19 million-acre wildlife refuge that the U.S. Geological Survey estimates could contain 5.7 billion to 16 billion barrels of crude oil.

Advocates say the affected area would amount to about 2,000 acres, “a small postage stamp of land,” as Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., put it.

Its environmentally sensitive location and its vast oil reserves have made it Ground Zero for years in a broader struggle between environmentalists and advocates of expanded commercial use of federal lands.

For Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who has fought hard for decades to open the refuge, commonly known as ANWR, to drilling, it was a victory. “I’m trying to smile again,” he said after the vote.

Stevens acknowledged it could be “a long process” before a final drilling measure clears Congress. Lawmakers must agree on the final budget, something they failed to do last year, or yesterday’s vote would have been for naught.

Also, the House did not include an Arctic refuge measure in its budget, a difference that will have to be worked out in future negotiations.

Advocates cited rising gasoline prices and dependence on foreign oil as evidence that greater domestic-oil production is essential. But their arguments were less decisive than the Republicans’ strengthened Senate majority; they gained four seats in November and hold 55 of 100 seats.

Seven Republicans voted to remove the drilling measure from the budget: Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Mike DeWine of Ohio, Gordon Smith of Oregon and John McCain of Arizona. Three Democrats broke ranks to vote for the drilling provision: Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.

The vote came as the price of oil reached a record high of more than $56 a barrel, prompting President Bush to complain.

“I am concerned about the price of energy,” he said at a news conference. “I’m concerned about what it means to the average American family when they see the price of gasoline going up.”

In 1995, a drilling measure passed Congress but was vetoed by President Clinton. Although the House has continued to support energy exploration in the refuge, legislation has been blocked in the Senate in recent years by Democrat-led filibusters.

Environmentalists and a lobbying consortium of oil companies called Arctic Power have spent millions of dollars fighting each other over drilling in the Alaska wildlife refuge.

Advocates of drilling cite the potential for up to 1 million barrels of oil a day from the refuge to ease U.S. dependence on Mideast oil. Critics say that pipelines and drilling platforms would harm calving caribou, polar bears and millions of migratory birds in the ecologically sensitive area.

Some analysts say both sides exaggerate the stakes.

“It’s not a big environmental hit, and it’s not a big energy hit,” said Henry Lee, an environment and energy expert at Harvard University.

Lee noted that oil prices would hardly be affected by the projected oil production. He also said technological improvements that allow horizontal drilling below the surface would limit environmental damage.

The ANWR proposal still must survive a Senate vote on the overall budget resolution, followed by House-Senate negotiations on that measure. Other controversial items on spending and tax policy could derail the budget resolution, as happened last year.

If Congress approves drilling in the refuge, oil industry officials said it probably would take seven to 10 years before oil begins flowing. North Slope oil production already occurs near the refuge.

Government models forecast that oil companies would be able to pump nearly 1 million barrels a day from the refuge in 2025. The United States uses about 7 billion barrels of oil a year.

With oil from the refuge, the United States would import about 65 percent of its oil in 2025, compared to about 68 percent without the additional domestic oil, according to data from the Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration.

The Washington Post,

Los Angeles Times and Associated Press contributed to this report.

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