KWAME HOLMAN: The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge covers 19.5 million acres in northern Alaska. It's home to caribou, polar bears, and millions of migratory birds. The land was placed under federal protection by President Eisenhower in 1960.
But today, as they have for the last two decades, Senate Republicans pushed to open just a small part of ANWR, as it's called, to oil drilling. They argued it contains one of the country's richest oil fields that would reduce U.S. reliance on imports.
SEN. PETE DOMENICI: ANWR, with the potential for one million barrels of oil a day, will be the most significant onshore production capacity of any onshore area in the United States.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats were back repeating their warning that drilling in the pristine, wildlife-rich land could lead to environmental disaster.
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: We've got a responsibility to protect the beauty of nature that's been given to us in some places for the generations that will follow us.
KWAME HOLMAN: But as the Senate resumed the drilling debate this week, the numbers for and against had changed. Drilling supporters picked up three additional votes in the November elections.
John Thune of South Dakota, for example, defeated one of the biggest opponents to arctic drilling, the Democratic leader Tom Daschle. On the floor today, Thune noted that oil prices had just hit a record high, a perfect time to give oil companies access to the refuge.
SEN. JOHN THUNE: Below the frozen tundra is the single largest and most promising onshore oil reserve in America, somewhere between 6 billion and 16 billion barrels of oil. Now, the average of that would be ten billion barrels.
How much is that? A million barrels a day that we could add to the production here in this country. That's 5 percent of what we use; 20 million barrels a day in the United States. We get ten billion barrels a day today from outside the United States.
KWAME HOLMAN: And Alaska's Lisa Murkowski tried to assure opponents that drilling in her home state would be safe.
SEN. LISA MURKOWSKI: We have put environmental safeguards and standards on our industry unlike any other place in the world. I've seen what we've done in the lower 48. And, quite honestly, I can understand why my colleagues are concerned about industry in Alaska, because they've seen it in their states; they've seen what they can do. But we have said, "No, we've learned from your mistakes."
KWAME HOLMAN: Still, Maria Cantwell of Washington State argued there may be cleaner, more efficient ways to produce energy.
SEN. MARIA CANTWELL: We could continue to look at renewable or non-petroleum fuel, such as ethanol made from crops, something the other side of the aisle has also supported, and look at requirements for renewable content of gasoline. That would be about 5.1 billion barrels by 2013 -- again, a source of cleaner energy that would be important for us in an energy plan.
KWAME HOLMAN: This year, as they did last year, Senate Republicans inserted a provision allowing drilling in ANWR into their budget resolution. It was a clever move because the budget resolution is immune to filibusters, meaning opponents could not block the drilling provision through endless debate. That tactic brought sharp criticisms from Democrats, including Massachusetts' John Kerry.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: We should not take the energy policy of the United States and dump it into a tiny debate onto the budget for a backdoor effort to find 50 votes-plus in order to do what has traditionally been done according to the rules of the United States Senate. This is an abuse of power. It's also an abuse of common sense.
KWAME HOLMAN: But several Republicans took to the floor to rebut Kerry's remarks, pointing out that Democrats had used the same tactics in the past. New Hampshire's Judd Gregg:
SEN. JUDD GREGG: So it is totally inappropriate for a senator to come to this floor and represent that this is some sort of unethical act, as was implied by the senator from Massachusetts. We are using the rules of the Senate as they were set up to be used, and that happens to be the rule of the Senate.
KWAME HOLMAN: In the last Congress, Democrats enlisted just enough Republicans to postpone the effort to drill in ANWR. But this year Republicans had the numbers, joined by three Democrats, including Hawaii's Daniel Inouye.
SEN. DANIEL INOUYE: And I hope that my colleagues will give this opportunity to the people of Alaska. When 229 tribes out of 230 tell me they want it, I am ready to respond, sir.
KWAME HOLMAN: With just one vote to spare, Republicans fought off efforts to strip ANWR oil drilling from the Senate budget resolution. No such provision currently exists in the House budget. It would have to be added and approved over some strong opposition there as well.