A group supporting the opening of a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska for “environmentally safe” oil exploration and drilling is urging Americans to support a congressional effort to include a provision to authorize it in an upcoming energy bill.

J. Zane Walley, executive director of the Alamogordo, N.M.-based Environmental Conservation Organization, a property-rights group, is warning energy prices could climb to astronomical levels if the U.S. continues to import most of its oil.

Oil exploration rig in largely uninhabitable area of Alaska National Wildlife Refuge

“In about a decade, almost 70 percent of our oil and gas will come from other countries – an energy deficit that could be very dangerous considering the problematic nations upon which we depend,” he said in an e-mail alert to group constituents. “The demand for natural gas is expected to double in the next 20 years, while domestic production is expected to grow only 14 percent, leaving our nation with a 36 percent natural-gas deficit.”

Currently, House and Senate Republicans are working to include a provision in an energy bill sought by President Bush to open a small section of ANWR to oil exploration and drilling. So far, however, the effort has been stalled by Democrats and lobbyists for major environmental groups.

Opponents say other, cleaner and renewable sources of energy should be developed instead of continued reliance on oil. Also, Democrats in Congress have accused the Bush White House of pandering to friendly oil and gas corporation interests, of which both he and Vice President Dick Cheney have had close ties in the past. And, they contend there is not enough oil in ANWR to substantially reduce U.S. reliance on foreign suppliers.

“President Bush’s energy plan won’t work, because it makes the wrong choices,” says a policy statement from the Sierra Club, one of the nation’s largest environmental organizations.

“The Bush administration energy plan ignores high-tech, energy-efficient solutions in favor of increased oil, gas, coal and nuclear production, while his budget proposal slashes funding for renewable energy and efficiency by a third,” the group says.

But supporters say the types of renewable energy favored by critics of the White House’s energy policies are expensive, too new to be widespread and too few to offset the nation’s current dependence on fossil fuels. And, if little is done to increase domestic supplies, not only will prices rise, but the administration and its Republican supporters say increased reliance on volatile foreign fuel sources could endanger national security.

“Energy production at ANWR can make a substantial dent in this looming crisis,” Walley said. “The mean estimate of economically recoverable oil in ANWR is 10.3 billion barrels. That is more than twice the proven oil reserves in all of Texas.”

Meanwhile, current U.S. supplies could become tighter and more expensive this fall, following a surprise decision by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, Wednesday to reduce production for 10 members by 900,000 barrels per day to 24.5 million, to become effective Nov. 1.

Reuters reported OPEC made its decision based on rising inventories, falling world prices and a gradual return of Iraqi crude oil to the market.

The decision alarmed the White House, which said “market forces” should determine prices instead.

“Oil prices should be determined by market forces so that we can ensure adequate supplies,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters. “Producing and consuming countries both have an interest in ample, affordable energy supplies.”

He said the administration was consulting with major oil producers in the wake of OPEC’s decision.

“Obviously we have ongoing and regular consultations with major oil producers around the world and those continue,” he said.

On Monday, Sen. Pete Dominici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, released for discussion the House version of a provision to allow oil exploration in ANWR.

“I have included ANWR in the conference discussion draft because developing ANWR is the right thing to do,” he said. “Environmentally-sound oil development in the Arctic creates hundreds of thousands of jobs, boosts our national economy, sends millions of dollars into the economies of virtually every state in the union and strengthens our national defense by making us less reliant on oil from hostile nations.”

He also said if he couldn’t rely on a filibuster-proof 60 votes to pass an energy bill containing provisions to allow for ANWR exploration, he wouldn’t add them to the final Senate version.

Walley said lawmakers needed to hear from their constituents who support drilling.

“Time is short,” he said.

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