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House OKs bill to drill in Arctic reserve

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- After hours of spirited debate, House lawmakers early Thursday approved a broad energy bill that would allow some oil drilling in an Alaskan refuge.

The energy package calling for limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge passed, 240-189, after 12 hours of debate. The 510-page bill now goes to the Senate.

The vote marks a victory for President George W. Bush, who had campaigned on the philosophy that exploration in the refuge is key to the nation's energy needs.

Democrats sought to rally support from enough moderate Republicans with environmental leanings for an amendment to block the plan to allow drilling in the reserve, but that was defeated in a 223-206 vote.

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Supporters said opening the Arctic refuge for oil exploration was needed to reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil.

"You might not like oil companies at home, but it's a lot better if we have it instead of getting it from Saddam Hussein," said Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-Louisiana.

Critics claimed the measure would damage one of the last great wilderness areas on the continent, while providing only six months' supply of oil -- and that would not be available for nearly 10 years.

The White House praised the vote, with Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham calling it a "tremendous victory for America ... an important step toward meeting our long-term energy needs and reducing our dependence on foreign sources of energy."

'Yes to the oil and gas industry'

Earlier Wednesday, the House voted 269-160 against raising fuel mileage standards for sport-utility vehicles to 27.5 miles per gallon, from the current fleet average of 20.7.

Rep. Christopher Shays, one of the moderate Republicans who has bucked the White House on other issues, said Congress should not approve drilling in the Alaskan refuge without raising fuel economy standards for automobiles.

"We're not resolving our energy needs because we're not conserving," said Shays, a Connecticut Republican.

Added Rep. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts: "They say 'yes' to the oil and gas industry and 'no' to renewable energy and conservation and efficiency."

Lawmakers kicked off debate on the House floor Wednesday morning, but sharp political rhetoric was also heard outside the Capitol as Democrats held a news conference to blast the wide-ranging measure.

"This is a bad bill. It is not worthy of passing," declared House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri. "It is all focused on production ... and it's not paid for -- and that, in and of itself, is enough reason to vote against this bill."

Members of the House majority highlighted what they considered environmentally friendly provisions, including incentives for cleaner energy sources and alternative fuels, the promotion of clean-coal technologies and stricter standards for energy use in federal buildings.

Reserve not 'wonderland' but a 'desert'

The measure, an amalgam of four bills produced by eight separate House committees, will:

-- Provide about $27 billion in tax breaks over 10 years for development of energy sources, to be allotted to the coal, gas, oil and nuclear industries.

-- Provide about $6 billion in incentives for industrial and individual conservation efforts, including financial breaks for buying solar panels, gas-electric hybrid cars, and energy-efficient appliances.

-- Boost federal research into clean coal technologies.

-- Boost federal spending for LIHEAP, a program that helps low-income families with energy costs.

The most controversial provision, however, would allow drilling in the Arctic reserve, a proposal that has drawn the ire of many environmental groups.

Speaking on the House floor, Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Florida, said the threat to the environment has been overstated, noting that the drilling would take place on only a fraction of the refuge, which is the size of South Carolina.

The area in question, he said, is not an "ecological wonderland," but a "frozen desert with few signs of life."

Democrats argued that Bush's broad energy plan would force the government to dip into the federal budget surplus, or the Medicare and Social Security trust funds, which, they predict, will be strained enough by increased numbers of beneficiaries in the next few years.

"We're talking about a budgetary train wreck," said Rep. Charles Rangel, D-New York.

"They're about to build their oil rigs on top of the Medicare and Social Security trust funds," Markey said.

The bill is the product of a three-month Cabinet-level study to determine a national energy strategy. The study was led by Vice President Dick Cheney in consultation with various interest groups, which the White House will not name.

The Cheney group said it aimed its recommendations at increasing the nation's energy supplies through expanded nuclear power, increased domestic oil drilling and more efficient movement of energy, including electricity, natural gas and petroleum.

Tuesday, House Republicans hosted a news conference with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in support of the energy bill. Labor leaders said oil exploration in the refuge, known as ANWR, would lead to thousands of jobs. Environmental groups held rival media events opposing the measure.



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