Views shift on Alaska drilling

For weeks, nearly every time President Bush has spoken about energy, he has re-emphasized his support for drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Last week, he lifted a presidential moratorium on drilling for oil and natural gas on the Outer Continental Shelf, hoping to prod Congress to act to clear the way for exploration along the country's coastline in response to soaring energy prices. He used Monday's Rose Garden appearance to urge Congress again to allow exploration for oil and gas in portions of ANWR.

Pressured by constituents whose budgets have been strained by high gas prices, there's also movement in Congress to explore more domestic sources of energy, particularly offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.

And as gas prices climb, polls have shown that people who once refused to consider drilling offshore or in ANWR have begun to change their minds. For the first time, 50 percent of those polled by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press last month said they supported drilling in ANWR. It's a steep climb from February, when 42 percent of those surveyed said they would support opening the wildlife refuge to exploration.

Yet politically, ANWR remains off-limits.

“Drilling is a red herring,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said firmly and unequivocally last week. “And that is not where we need to go.”

The unmovable opposition has been an exercise in frustration for the Alaskans who want to persuade Congress that ANWR can be tapped in a safe, environmentally sound manner.

“They're flipping, whether it's Maine or Oregon or Minnesota,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, citing the polls that show a change in opinion. “States where traditionally people have been opposed are now saying, ‘Well, wait a minute. What is going on in ANWR? Why can't we be exploring there?'”

It is an almost palpable shift, said John Katz, who heads Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's Washington, D.C., office.

“What I'm seeing is an increasing awareness by citizens outside the capital Beltway of the current energy situation,” Katz said. “In increments, the anger and frustration that Americans are feeling … about the cost of energy is being communicated to the Congress.”

But it is not enough, Katz said.

“What I'm not seeing so far is any beneficial impact on the Democratic leadership in the House and the Senate,” Katz said. “They seem pretty well entrenched on ANWR, at least in this moment.”

That entrenchment comes from the top. Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, opposes drilling in ANWR, as does Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate.

For Senate Republicans, that means ANWR simply wouldn't be part of their energy proposal between now and the election.

“We took ANWR off the table because we know it's controversial,” Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio told reporters last week during a Republican news conference on energy.

“It's a hot button,” acknowledged Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. “From a political point of view, we were told categorically that since Obama has taken the stance he's taken, and McCain agrees with him, there's no chance we can get a vote on ANWR.”

That doesn't mean that environmentalists who have successfully deflected previous attempts to open ANWR have let down their guard. The recent discussions about offshore drilling and ANWR are enough to put environmentalists in what Athan Manuel of the Sierra Club called “code red, stratospheric code red.”

“We're doing the most old-fashioned thing you can do: We're pushing right back with the facts,” Manuel said. “Drilling is not the solution to high gas prices.”

Democrats in both the House and the Senate have endorsed other options, including a “use it or lose it” approach that pushed for a more aggressive leasing schedule in Alaska's National Petroleum Reserve, an area on the North Slope owned by the federal government. Both parties are also focusing on legislation to curb speculation in oil futures markets.