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Close Senate vote supports development in ANWR

Republicans claimed victory on Wednesday after the Senate narrowly rejected a Democrat effort to block drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Several members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee played key roles in the debate and vote on the controversial issue. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) introduced the amendment to strip authorization for drilling from the federal government's budget while Republicans on the committee, including Sens. Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), argued against it.

The amendment polarized the two parties but in the end, Republicans were able to obtain the 51 votes, just one more than necessary, needed to defeat it. They did so with the votes of two Indian committee Democrats -- Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka, both of Hawaii.

While drilling is not a done deal, Republicans nevertheless praised the vote as a showing of their party's force. "The Senate today affirmed its deep concern for our consumers and our economy," said Domenici, who also serves as chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. "We signaled our concern over dropping fuel inventories, record high energy prices and global uncertainty."

Besides economic concerns, debate on the measure turned to the impact drilling might have on Alaska Natives, who are on both sides of the issue. Inupiat Eskimos, who own land and resource rights in the refuge where drilling is proposed, support development because it would create jobs and generate revenue.

On the other hand, members of the Gwich'in Nation, who live in a village right outside the southern border of ANWR, oppose drilling for fear it will harm the Porcupine caribou herd. The tribe relies on the herd for food and cultural survival.

Inouye, former chairman of the Indian committee, discounted the Gwich'in Nation by arguing that the majority of Alaska Natives support development. "There are 230 Indian tribes and tribal villages in the state of Alaska," he said. "One tribe is against it."

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) does not sit on the Indian committee but also brought up Alaska Natives. He said approval of drilling will help all Natives, not just the Eskimos, because revenues will be distributed among the Native regional corporations, which are not tribes or governments.

"When one region gets money from natural resources, it must share will the other 11 regions," he said. "That's why all Alaska Natives have an interest in ANWR."

The Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, a corporation of 8,000 Inupiat Eskimos, owns drilling rights to some of the land in ANWR where drilling might occur. The surface rights are held by the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation, a corporation representing the Inupiat village of Kaktovik.

ASRC officials insist drilling can be done in an environmentally sound way. Development has occurred on Native-owned land outside the refuge without detrimental impacts, they say.

The Gwich'in, who are Athabaskan, believe any disturbance within will harm the caribou herd, which migrates from Canada into Alaska. ANWR is the calving ground for caribou mothers.

The pro-drilling provision is contained in the budget resolution, which still needs to pass the Senate. It must be reconciled with the House's version of the bill, which doesn't include drilling.

After the vote yesterday, Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California), chairman of the House Resources Committee, said he will include authorization for drilling in the national energy policy legislation. "Oil is the lifeblood of our economy and a critical component of our national security, which is why it only takes common sense to conclude that we should produce more of it here at home," he said. "America needs American oil."

Roll Call:
To strike section 201(a)(4) relative to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (March 16, 2003)

Relevant Links:
Gwich'in Steering Committee -
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish and Willdife Service -
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Pro-Development site -