GOP pushes plan to open ANWR, expand offshore drilling

Senate Republicans are making another bid to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling — but this time they are trying to sweeten the offer by dedicating a quarter of the revenue to renewable energy projects.

The ANWR drilling plan is embedded in energy legislation unveiled Thursday by more than two dozen lawmakers, led by David Vitter of Louisiana and John Cornyn of Texas.

The bill also would restrict environmental groups from filing legal challenges to energy projects, force the government to approve a pipeline that would bring Canadian oil sands crude to the Gulf Coast and clear the path for Shell to begin oil drilling in Arctic waters near Alaska.

“This measure will take the boot off the neck of domestic energy producers and unlock our domestic energy potential,” Cornyn said.

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said the legislation “gets Washington out of the way of America developing its own energy resources.”

Republicans cast the measure as an immediate balm for rising oil prices, which have been pushed up by unrest in Libya, Egypt and other parts of the Middle East.

But Democrats and administration officials stressed that any new drilling projects — even if approved today — could take years to produce oil and gas. And even then, the added energy production might not make a difference in oil prices that they insist are set globally.

David Alberswerth, a senior policy adviser at The Wilderness Society, said the Republicans’ drilling bill “puts the foxes in charge of the hen house” by effectively ceding control of federal lands to oil and gas companies.

With crude oil above $100 per barrel, both political parties are advancing energy proposals that promise to ease pain at the pump for Americans.

President Barack Obama on Wednesday pitched his plans for slashing U.S. oil imports by a third over the next 14 years, including support for natural gas-powered vehicles and stronger fuel-efficiency requirements for cars.

House Republicans have unveiled bills that would expand domestic drilling. A House Natural Resources subcommittee is set to hold a hearing on the leading legislation by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., next Wednesday.

Although the House is expected to pass pro-drilling legislation, the chances in the Democratically controlled Senate are much slimmer. And proposals to tap ANWR have always been political hot potatoes.

But Vitter said he thinks the political pressure from rising gasoline prices could change the dynamic on Capitol Hill.

“Wait and watch,” he said. “As the price at the pump goes to four dollars, . . . attitudes can change pretty quickly. We saw that in the summer of 2008, and I think we’re about to see that again.”

Plans to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling are perennials on Capitol Hill, offered every time gasoline prices rise. Drilling advocates say opening the refuge would give the U.S. access to an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil in the region. But environmentalists say the oil gains would be small, especially given the risks of damage to wildlife and habitat.

In recent years, Republicans have tried new tactics to make ANWR drilling more attractive. The latest gambit, by Alaska’s senators — Republican Lisa Murkowski and Democrat Mark Begich — would have allowed oil companies to use new horizontal drilling techniques to explore the refuge’s reserves, as long as their footprint was not within the federally protected area.

The measure introduced by Vitter and Cornyn today would dedicate 25 percent of oil and gas royalties from ANWR drilling to a trust fund for alternative and renewable energy development.