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Senate panel delays vote on Alaska oil drilling

Friday, September 9, 2005; 11:28 AM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate Energy Committee said Friday it postponed action to open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling because of a delay in Congressional work to finalize a broad package of federal spending.

Drilling supporters say the disruption of oil and gas production in the Gulf of Mexico after Hurricane Katrina shows that energy companies need access to the refuge's billions of barrels of crude to help diversify locations for domestic crude supplies.

The Senate Energy committee was scheduled to meet September 14 to vote on language for the federal budget that would raise an estimated $2.4 billion from leasing tracts in ANWR to energy companies for oil exploration.

That language would then be forwarded to the Senate Budget Committee, which would fold it into the giant budget bill that funds the federal government.

However, after Senate and House leaders decided to delay crafting the budget package for at least two weeks, the energy panel said it postponed its meeting on the ANWR drilling language.

Democratic lawmakers wanted to suspend work on some $35 billion in spending cuts in the budget bill to the Medicaid health-care program, food stamps and other government programs that they argued would help people displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

An energy committee spokeswoman said no new date has been set to vote on the drilling language, which is expected to be approved by the panel.

Republican leaders want to tack the Alaska drilling plan to budget legislation, because under Senate rules the giant spending bill could not be filibustered.

A coalition of most Senate Democrats and moderate Republicans in the past successfully blocked opening ANWR to drilling when there was an attempt to make the drilling plan part of broader energy legislation.

If Congress approved drilling in the Arctic refuge this year, the first oil would not begin flowing until 2015, assuming the government leases the first exploration tracts in 2007, according to the Energy Information Administration.

That would have no impact on replacing the current loss of Gulf of Mexico oil and gas production due to Katrina.

The refuge, about the size of South Carolina, sprawls across more than 19 million acres in northeastern Alaska. Drilling would occur in ANWR's 1.5 million-acre coastal plain.

An estimated 10.4 billion barrels of crude could be recovered from the refuge, according to government figures. Environmental groups say Congress should look at ways to reduce oil consumption with more fuel-efficient vehicle standards instead of threatening the habitat of wildlife in the refuge.



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