Stickin’ it to the porcupine caribou in the Arctic Refuge.

Photo: Ken Whitten, Wilderness Society.

Oil companies are closing in on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In a crushing blow to those who have fought for some 25 years to preserve the unspoiled Alaskan wildland, the Senate voted today to clear the way for oil and gas drilling within the Arctic Refuge. By a 51-49 vote, they rejected an amendment by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) that would have stripped from a budget bill a provision that assumes the government will raise revenue from drilling in the refuge’s coastal plain.

Opening the Arctic Refuge is not a done deal yet — the controversial budget bill has to survive heated Republican wrangling, and some formalities must be addressed to authorize drilling — but oil exploration in the refuge is more likely now than ever before.

For years, Senate Democrats and a handful of moderate Republicans beat back repeated efforts to get at the refuge’s oil deposits. But this year, thanks to soaring oil prices and a five-vote GOP margin in the Senate, the Republican leadership saw its best chance in a decade — since 1995 when Congress passed a budget bill with an ANWR provision that President Clinton vetoed.

Last week, Senate Budget Committee Chair Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), considered one of the more pro-environment Republicans on Capitol Hill, succumbed to pressure from the White House and Alaska’s senators to attach a similar Arctic Refuge provision to the 2006 budget resolution.

Pinning the Arctic Refuge to the bill is an aggressive and controversial move because, unlike most legislative initiatives, the budget bill is exempt from filibusters and therefore needs only 51 votes to pass, not 60. “It’s a desperate attempt, an abuse of the legislative system to try and push a major national policy through this backdoor strategy and avoid an open debate,” said Charla Neuman, a staffer for Cantwell, a leading opponent of drilling in the refuge. “It goes to show how worried they are about getting it through in any kind of reasonable way.” Desperate or not, the attempt worked remarkably well. Marnie Funk, Republican spokesperson for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, acknowledged that passage of the budget bill is not yet guaranteed, but said, “This is our best shot ever at getting ANWR.”

When GOP senators tried to open up the Arctic Refuge using the same budget-bill maneuver in 2003, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) proposed an amendment to strip out the drilling provision and triumphed by a 52-48 margin. On Tuesday, Cantwell introduced a similar amendment. Today, she found out how much times have changed.

Enviros, not surprisingly, are reeling. “Today’s vote sends a terrible message about America’s energy future,” said Deb Callahan, head of the League of Conservation Voters. “If this is allowed to stand, we could not begin to calculate the loss to future generations.” Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, said, “We deeply regret that 51 senators voted to pursue special interests instead of energy solutions.” Still, he insisted, “This razor-thin vote is by no means a mandate to drill in the Arctic Refuge.”

Karen Wayland, legislative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, warned that the move could pave the way for drilling in other spots around the country. “The Arctic is a symbol for a much bigger effort to get into environmentally sensitive regions,” she told Muckraker. “The Rocky Mountain [region], off the coast of Florida — they want to drill everywhere. If they can get into the Arctic, then no place is off-limits.”

Still, a saving grace for the refuge could come in the form of a congressional stalemate: Controversy over the budget bill could erupt between the House and Senate during the conference process and prevent the legislation from moving forward, given the backlash among fiscal conservatives over the monstrous deficit.

“Our best hope is not environmental lobbying at this point, but that Republicans will defeat the budget bill themselves because of irreconcilable differences over how to cope with the budget crisis,” said Chris Miller, a minority staffer for the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

It’s a sobering state of affairs: After zealously fighting for more than two decades to protect the Arctic Refuge, the environmental community must now accept a negligible role in the battle and hope that Republican infighting saves the day.