Politics Driving Senate Energy Debate as Much as Policy

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- Politics, as much as policy, will drive this week's Senate debate over the most controversial issue involving America's energy future -- whether to allow oil and gas exploration in Alaska's federally protected Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

"We're all consumed with the political aspects of the debate instead of the policy," Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, admitted to reporters as Congress began the spring recess that ends Monday. "We have to get serious about energy policy."

But ANWR, the 19 million acres of protected land and wildlife in remote northeast Alaska, is the centerpiece of President Bush's energy plan and, as such, is the major political flash point between Republicans and Democrats in the debate over energy policy.

And with congressional elections less than seven months away, there is increasing pressure on both parties from important constituencies.

Energy companies, with strong ties to the White House and the GOP, are lobbying to open a portion of ANWR to exploration, while environmental and conservation groups are pushing their Democratic friends to protect the refuge.

"Right now, energy is not seen as one of the big issues because oil prices have been calm and the economy is coming back. But with gas prices expected to rise throughout the summer, energy could be a sleeper issue in the fall," said Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University.

The Republican message in the energy debate so far is that oil from ANWR will reduce America's reliance on foreign oil to meet the growing demand for energy and Democrats will be responsible for any failure to meet that demand.

If ANWR's oil supply is not tapped, "the time will come -- maybe even this summer once again -- when we will have rolling brownouts, and someday, perhaps, blackouts, as well as gas lines again," said Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, the Republican leader in the Senate.

The message is also part of the grassroots lobbying by Republican allies. The Family Research Council, for example, has sponsored ads in Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's home state of South Dakota with photos of Daschle and Iraq's President Saddam Hussein, suggesting the actions of both are keeping America dependent on foreign oil. …