USA: Bush Task Force to Recommend Alaska Drilling

WASHINGTON -- Seeking to clarify a muddied message on oil exploration in the Alaska wilderness, the White House said on Monday President Bush's energy panel would call for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Bush made opening about 8 percent of the refuge's coastal plain for exploration central to his long-term solution to U.S. energy shortages and a major plank of his election campaign.

''The president's position is as it always has been,'' White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. ''The president believes we can and we should, in an environmentally responsible way, open up a small portion of ANWR so we can explore for oil.''

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Christine Todd Whitman said on Sunday the White House energy task force's report would not specifically cite drilling in the refuge as a vital option. Her remarks came after senior Bush adviser Karl Rove reportedly told a Republican consultant the president would not push for drilling there.

But Fleischer said Bush's position remained the same and that the president ''intends to fight for it.''

''That will be part of the energy plan that is presented to the president and nothing has changed,'' he told reporters.

The idea of drilling in the arctic refuge has little appeal in Congress and Bush faces widespread opposition from environmentalists who cite it as a pristine home to teeming herds of caribou and other wildlife.

His administration has taken a public relations beating recently over some of its environmental stands and the comments from Whitman and Rove were seen as part of a continuing effort to reverse what Interior Secretary Gale Norton portrayed as a failure ''to get our message across.''

Part of The Plan

In recent weeks, Bush withdrew from talks on a global warming treaty; declined for now to implement tougher standards for arsenic in drinking water; reneged on a campaign pledge to require power plants to control emissions of carbon dioxide, and took other actions critics say show he is more interested in helping industry than protecting the environment.

To shore up its environmental image, the White House last week made several announcements with fanfare, including upholding rules from the Democratic administration of former President Clinton requiring thousands more businesses to disclose potentially toxic lead emissions and signing a global treaty aimed at curbing toxic chemicals.

Trying to limit the damage from the arsenic controversy, Whitman said on Wednesday said she had asked the National Academy of Sciences (news - web sites) to review the issue and that a new rule would call for a reduction of arsenic in drinking water of at least 60 percent from current allowable levels. A Clinton plan would have reduced levels by 80 percent.

Whitman, a member of the panel that has been studying energy options to present to Bush, clarified her own statement on drilling in the refuge, saying later on Sunday the task force would not make specific recommendations on where to drill.

''We aren't specifically saying you should or should not'' drill in specific locations, Whitman said. ''We haven't taken anything off the table or put anything on.''

The Cabinet-level panel, headed by Vice President Dick Cheney and appointed on Jan. 29, is expected to report by mid-May. Norton, who also sits on the task force, defended the idea of drilling in the refuge.

''That's an area that has been for decades designated as a place where we might want to have oil production at some point. And so it's a question that needs to be addressed by Congress,'' she said.

Congressional Republican leaders have omitted from their pending 2002 budget resolutions any revenues from drilling in the refuge, seeking to avoid a fight.

Bush asked for a plan to fight high energy prices and reduce dependence on foreign oil, to encourage development of pipelines and power-generating capacity and to find ways to cope with California's electricity supply shortage.

''Our energy plan will look at a number of diverse ways to increase supply,'' a White House official said. ''One of a diverse number of ways to increase supply is to open a small part of ANWR to exploration.''

''It will be part of the plan,'' he said.

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