Senate votes to bar drilling in national monuments |

Senate votes to bar drilling in national monuments

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Democratic-led Senate voted Wednesday to bar coal mining and oil and gas drilling on pristine federally protected land in the West, dealing a fresh blow to President Bush’s energy production plans.

The 57-42 roll call aligned the Senate with the House, which voted last month to ban mineral extraction from the monuments after Democrats there won support from moderate Republicans. The two chambers’ votes make it likely that the prohibition will be included in the compromise spending bill for the Interior Department that they will write in coming weeks.

The vote came as House Republicans began crafting a scaled-back energy package that they hope to pass by August.

The Senate proposal, offered by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., was supported by 46 Democrats, 10 Republicans and one independent and opposed by 38 Republicans and four Democrats. It would forbid new mining and drilling while allowing ongoing operations to proceed.

Durbin acted after the Interior Department said there are significant energy reserves inside national monuments designated by former President Clinton, including large low-sulfur coal deposits in the 1.7-million acre Grand Staircase Escalante National monument in Utah.

Durbin argued that drilling for oil on the federally protected lands wasn’t worth it. ”President Bush needs to realize that damaging these irreplaceable lands is not going to solve America’s energy crisis, but could cause a crisis in conservation,” he said.

But opponents said closing off mineral exploration in the monuments would be short-sighted in light of the country’s energy problems.

Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., said Durbin’s proposal amounted to ”hiding behind the screen of green and throwing out all logic on the management of those lands.” And Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said the ban would force the country ”to go begging to the thieves in the Middle East.”

The Senate then began debating an amendment by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., that would delay a Bush administration effort to open part of the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas exploration. The House has already approved the same provision, which would delay final lease agreements until April 1. Opponents of offshore drilling say this would give them time to work out an agreement.

In the House, where four committees were considering various energy proposals, Republicans said they plan to assemble an energy bill by next week. The measure would likely require automakers to boost the fuel economy of popular sport utility vehicles and allow drilling in an Arctic wildlife refuge.

Both issues are highly controversial. Senate Democrats have vowed to block any Arctic refuge drilling.

Bush’s high-profile release of his energy blueprint May 17 assumed swift action on Capitol Hill. However, the momentum for broad, comprehensive energy legislation has dissipated in recent weeks, partly because gasoline and natural gas prices have eased and California’s power problems have to some extent been brought under control.

The energy bills in the House focus mostly on modest measures on which there is bipartisan agreement. Proposals on power plant and transmission line siting, streamlining environmental regulations for refineries and power plants, and broad electricity industry restructuring have been put off for later.

Much ballyhooed Bush proposals to expand oil and gas development on public lands also have been largely shelved for the time being in the wake of the House votes, except for the issue of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

A provision to allow drilling in the refuge is expected this week to emerge from the House Resources Committee, but even its sponsors question whether there are enough votes to keep it in the bill.

It will be ”obviously the most controversial part of the bill,” said Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., who supports refuge development.

Some Republicans, including Tauzin, said the White House should be doing more to keep energy issues a top priority as the energy ”crisis” atmosphere of a few weeks ago begins to disappear. Still, Tauzin vowed to win passage of the scaled back package before Congress begins a monthlong recess in August.

Amid the GOP criticism, Vice President Dick Cheney and key Cabinet members planned to travel around the country next week to promote the administration’s energy proposals. Cheney will speak Monday at a meeting of the National Association of Counties in Philadelphia and at a town meeting in Pittsburgh.

The legislation before Tauzin’s committee includes measures to spur use of clean coal technologies at power plants and ease problems for refineries as they make seasonal changes in gasoline blends. It extends licensing periods for nuclear power plants. It also includes a string of conservation measures from requiring the government to use more efficient air conditioners to new efficiency standards for televisions, ceiling fans and vending machines.

As introduced Wednesday, however, the bill makes no mention of increasing the motor vehicle fuel economy standards, or CAFE, which environmentalists have argued should be tightened significantly to save energy.

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