WASHINGTON - The U.S. Senate stopped the latest bid to open an Alaska wildlife refuge to oil drilling Wednesday, blocking for now one of President George W. Bush's top priorities.
Canadian officials and environmentalists who strongly oppose drilling applauded the results of a dramatic showdown on Capitol Hill, where Senate Democrats refused to vote on a critical defence bill if the oil provision stayed in.
File picture shows a protestor holding a photograph of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) at a rally in Washington, DC in September. The US Senate approved a 453-billion-dollar military spending bill, after removing a provision to allow oil companies to drill in a wildlife preserve in Alaska(AFP/File/Tim Sloan)
"I'm very happy," Environment Minister Stephane Dion said from Montreal. "But we will stay on guard.
"When you have a frail ecosystem, you don't put it at risk. We need to show that example (to the world) as a rich continent."
Alaska Senator Ted Stevens led the drive to slip drilling into a $453-billion US bill providing money for Iraq troops and hurricane relief, hoping the importance of the legislation would twist the arms of critics in the scramble to finish business before the Christmas break.
"It was wrong at the 11th hour to try and attach this energy and environment matter to a bill whose purpose was to provide funding support for the American military at a time of war," said Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman.
"It took a lot of guts for a lot of people to stand up."
Said Democratic leader Harry Reid: "Our military is being held hostage by this issue."
Republican leaders, short by four votes in an attempt to stop a filibuster over the issue, were plotting their next moves, including whether they should try to insert drilling into a different piece of legislation.
No one expected the issue go away for too long.
Canada says opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will disrupt a migrating caribou herd that crosses the Alaska-Yukon border and sustains Gwich'in communities on both sides.
Prime Minister Paul Martin has discussed the issue with Bush, pointing out that a 1987 Canada-U.S. agreement states the two countries are supposed to refrain from any activities that could damage the Porcupine caribou herd or its habitat.
The herd is already in trouble because global warming is producing more snow and more animals are starving as they move from south to north, said Dion.
Stevens, who's been trying since 1980 to get the refuge opened only to be thwarted in the end, said he wasn't giving up this time either.
"We're going to stay here until this is finished," he said before the vote, adding that he'd already cancelled his airline tickets to go home for Christmas.
Stevens maintains the Alaska oil there is vital to supply and national security since the United States is so heavily dependent on unstable countries for energy.
His latest bid went farther than most at a time when legislators are worried about security, high prices at the pumps and hurricane damage to Gulf Coast pipelines.
Under his plan, some of the leasing revenue from energy exploration in the refuge would have gone toward rebuilding efforts in five states hit hard by hurricanes this year.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates there are about 10.4 billion barrels of oil in the park, enough to serve the entire United States for about 16 months.
Critics argue that amount is hardly worth disturbing a fragile ecosystem that contains caribou calving grounds and supports other animals like polar bears, musk oxen and millions of migratory birds.
"It is a real victory for the environmental movement all throughout this country," Democrat Dianne Feinsten of California said of the Senate vote.
"Destroying this wilderness will do very little to reduce energy costs nor does it do very much for oil dependence," she said. "It would offer a number of false hopes.
"I don't believe we can drill our way to energy independence."
Congress approved Arctic drilling in 1995 as part of a budget package but former president Bill Clinton vetoed it.
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