Oil companies scope on Alaska

Both sides in a U.S. Senate debate over opening an Alaskan wildlife refuge to oil drilling expected a close vote on Wednesday over the latest attempt by Senate Republicans to pass the measure, this time by adding it to a big military-spending bill.

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, known as ANWR, which sprawls along Alaska's northern coast and may hold 10 billion barrels of oil, has been the focus of bitter wrangling in Congress for more than two decades.

Most Senate Democrats and some moderate Republicans say the frigid wilderness and its assortment of wildlife, ranging from polar bears to peregrine falcons, should be protected. Republicans contend the refuge must be opened to drilling to stop a steady slide in U.S. crude-oil production.

Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska attached the measure to a $453 billion defense-spending bill that pays for U.S. troops and Pentagon weapons programs in the coming year. Furious Democrats threatened to block the measure with a filibuster, saying the ANWR measure has no connection to military spending and violates Senate rules.

With Congress moving to wrap up its work for the year, both Democrats and Republicans said the situation was fluid with some senators still undecided on whether to support a filibuster that would effectively talk the bill to death.

Republicans have to muster 60 votes to stop a filibuster. They hold 55 seats in the Senate while Democrats have 44 seats. There is one independent.

"I think it will be a very close vote," said Democratic Leader Harry Reid. "This is going to be a hard day."

Stevens, who has fought since the 1980s to pry open the refuge, gave mixed signals. Initially he said he would drop ANWR from the bill if Democrats successfully filibustered it, but later said he would force the entire bill to be renegotiated.

In anticipation of a tight vote on the defense bill and a separate budget-cutting bill, Vice President Dick Cheney cut short a trip to the Middle East to return to Washington. In his role as Senate president, Cheney could break any tie.

Democrats expressed concern about whether Christopher Dodd of Connecticut could get to Capitol Hill to cast a vote. Dodd, a drilling opponent, is recovering from major surgery.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages ANWR, describes it as "one of the finest examples of wilderness left on the planet." The refuge is the same size as South Carolina, with most of its land accessible only by plane or boat.

Oil companies say exploration and drilling could be limited to a small area and would not harm the wildlife, Reuters reports.


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