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Senate GOP Leaders Introduce Arctic Refuge Oil Drilling Bill

By Eric Pianin and Peter Behr

Senate Republican leaders introduced an energy bill Monday that would allow oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and provide billions of dollars of tax incentives and spending to boost domestic energy production.

The proposal embraces most of the other energy goals that President Bush outlined during his campaign, including incentives for increased domestic production, and electricity regulatory reform. A Cabinet-level energy task force headed by Vice President Dick Cheney is working on specific proposals that are likely to overlap with many of the provisions in the GOP bill, according to lawmakers and administration officials.

At a news conference announcing the legislation, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) described energy shortages and volatile gasoline and natural gas prices as “perhaps the greatest threat to our future economic prosperity.”

Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and chief author of the bill, added, “At no time in our history have we really relied upon others for more of our energy supplies while producing a smaller percentage of the energy that we consume.”

The legislation is already drawing fire, however, from many Democrats and Republicans and leaders of environmental groups who oppose the proposal for exploratory oil and gas drilling along the coastal plain of the Alaskan refuge, a pristine 19 million acre territory.

Although Lott predicted the Senate would act on a comprehensive energy bill this summer, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) has vowed to lead a filibuster to block any legislation that would open the Alaskan refuge to drilling. In the House, a bipartisan group of nearly 120 lawmakers led by Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Nancy Johnson (R-Conn.) will introduce legislation Wednesday to put the refuge off limits to drilling.

A House GOP leadership aide acknowledged Monday that Bush currently lacks sufficient support in the House to pass legislation permitting drilling in the territory.

Administration officials and Republican congressional leaders say Congress must move quickly to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil. They predict that pressure for action will mount this summer if power shortages and blackouts like those in California spread to other states.

The Republican bill sets the goal of reducing foreign oil imports by more than 10 percent by 2010. The United States currently imports 56 percent of the oil it consumes.

It would provide new tax and regulatory incentives to companies for oil and natural gas production and to power plants that use modern technology to burn coal more cleanly. It also would expand programs to help low-income families cope with high energy bills, provide consumers with new tax incentives for using renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, and tax breaks for buying ultra energy-efficient cars, homes and appliances.

An earlier draft included a tax break for major oil companies, but it was dropped from the final version in a bid to hold down the overall price tag. Murkowski declined to estimate the cost until the Joint Committee on Taxation completes an analysis. Taxpayers for Common Sense, an independent budget watchdog group pegged the cost of the proposed tax breaks and spending at about $20 billion over 10 years.