KWAME HOLMAN: In recent weeks, gasoline prices across the country have shot up 40 to 50 cents per gallon. Experts blame Iraq's suspension of oil exports, political upheaval in oil-producing Venezuela, and surging domestic demand that's out-pacing oil stocks on hand. Drivers are feeling the pinch.
MAN: We try not to drive as much any more, yeah, but we have to because we have the boys in baseball: Two boys, two different teams; two different times, two different cars.
KWAME HOLMAN: The rattled oil market has been embraced on the Senate floor as just one more reason to allow oil exploration in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, known as ANWR.
SEN. FRANK MURKOWSKI: As we look at our relationship with Iraq, opening ANWR will make us certainly less dependent on countries such as Iraq. Let me show you a picture of our friend Saddam Hussein. There he is. I do not know how much attention is going to have to be given by America and its elected leadership to recognize what this means. Saddam Hussein is saying, "oil as a weapon."
KWAME HOLMAN: Located on Alaska's northeastern coast, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge comprises some 18 million acres. A small part of it on the arctic coastal plain has been reserved since 1980 as a rich potential source for domestic oil and natural gas production. And for nearly that long, granting oil companies the right to drill in the barren, pristine wilderness has been the focal point of a largely partisan debate in Congress.
Most Democrats say drilling in the refuge is unwise and unnecessary. Most Republicans argue oil fields at nearby Prudhoe Bay prove production can be done in an environmentally-sound manner. They say ANWR could produce a million barrels of oil a day, and help reduce US dependence on foreign sources. For the last two weeks, the latest tug-of-war over ANWR has held up a wide-ranging energy bill in the Senate. Leading the fight to allow drilling in ANWR are both of Alaska's Republican Senators. Ted Stevens says environmental groups are romanticizing ANWR.
SEN. TED STEVENS: Now, you read the Wilderness Society publication, you would think we are invading the most pristine place on earth. It is hell in the wintertime-- 60 below. I took the postmaster general there, and the digital thermometer said minus 99 because of the wind-chill factor. This is not some pristine place that should be protected. It should be protected at a time when it needs protection, which is the summer, and we do that. We do not drill for oil and gas in the summertime.
KWAME HOLMAN: One of the main speakers against oil drilling in ANWR was Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry:
SEN. JOHN KERRY: Its ecological value is unlike any other in the nation and in the world. More than 180 birds from four continents have been identified in the refuge and its coastal plain is a major migration route. It's home to 36 species of land mammals. It protects the calving ground of the caribou, which we've heard about. It's home to black, brown, and polar bears. Nine marine mammals live off its coast; 36 fish species live in its rivers and lakes. More 300 archeological sites. There are no roads, no trails, no developments; wilderness prevails.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats also have pointed out ANWR oil production would provide little, and be long in coming.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN: How much oil is involved here? Well, they talk in terms of millions and billions, but put it in this perspective: Over a ten-year period of time, if we draw from ANWR, the oil that the US Geological Survey says is there, it will account for a six- month supply of oil for the United States in that ten-year period. Put it in this perspective, as well: By the year 2020, if ANWR is in full production, ANWR would reduce our importation of foreign oil from 62% of our national need to 60%, a 2% reduction.
KWAME HOLMAN: John Breaux's state of Louisiana produces a substantial portion of the country's oil and natural gas. He's virtually alone among Senate Democrats in supporting oil drilling in the arctic refuge.
SEN. JOHN BREAUX: And for those who say, "well, you're going to interfere with their lifestyle," look at this photograph. These aren't dummies that somebody put up in the North Slope. I see the Senator from Alaska knows that area quite well. It's his state. These are live, living, breathing, multiplying caribou that are sitting within a stone's throw of a production facility in Alaska.
KWAME HOLMAN: Alaska's Frank Murkowski says oil production in the arctic refuge means jobs for local people.
SEN. FRANK MURKOWSKI: And for those who are under the misunderstanding that this area of ANWR is untouched, let me show you a few pictures of the actual footprint that's already there. There is the village of Kaktovik; roughly 3,000 people in that village. They are American citizens, they're Alaskans. They have dreams of a better lifestyle, job opportunities, running water, things we take for granted. But that is their community, and it is in ANWR. And they feel very strongly about supporting this because it improves their lives and improves opportunities for their children, educational opportunities.
KWAME HOLMAN: On the Capitol grounds yesterday, proponents of ANWR drilling linked arms with unionized steel workers, who see thousands of jobs arising from oil and natural gas production in the Arctic Refuge. In preparation for votes expected tomorrow, Senate proponents also have worked to win over colleagues from steel- producing states by committing tax revenues from ANWR drilling to pensions for retired steel workers. Nonetheless, even those proponents admit the 20-year struggle to drill in part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is likely to suffer another setback this week when the votes are counted in the Senate.