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WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush, the day before the House begins considering key parts of his energy plan, renewed his call for oil drilling in an Arctic wildlife refuge. He said he was confident it could be done without harming the environment.

Lobbying on Capitol Hill focused on whether to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil companies and on a proposal by a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans to require automakers to make sport utility vehicles more fuel efficient.

Both issues are expected to produce close votes when the energy package, the first installment of the president’s energy blueprint unveiled in May, comes up for a vote, perhaps as early as Wednesday.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Bush said Tuesday that drilling in the Arctic refuge in northeastern Alaska was a vital part of a balanced energy policy that focuses on production and conservation. “I’m confident we can do so (drill) in an environmentally friendly way,” said Bush.

Oil companies currently are prohibited from exploring for oil in the refuge, which is believed to contain resources comparable to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields a few miles to the west.

Supporters and opponents of drilling said Tuesday the vote count was too close to predict. The legislation includes a provision that would allow drilling, but opponents planned to offer an amendment on Wednesday to kill it.

Administration officials have acknowledged an uphill fight to lift the congressional drilling ban. Senate Democrats, who now have a majority, have vowed to block any drilling proposal.

Still, a green light for drilling from the House would give the issue fresh momentum.

Petroleum geologists estimate that the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain of the 19-million-acre refuge contains between 5.6 billion and 16 billion barrels of oil.

“These are substantial, substantial reserves,” said Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, comparing it to 30 years of imports from Saudi Arabia or 50 years of imports from Iraq.

Opponents, however, say the daily output of oil from ANWR amounts to little more than six months of U.S. oil consumption. More oil would be saved with modest increases in the fuel efficiency of automobiles and gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles, declared Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., one of a group of GOP moderates opposing drilling in the refuge.

The White House dispatched Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to Capitol Hill to tout drilling in the refuge with a promise of jobs. The Teamsters Union has been pressing wavering Democrats to support drilling, maintaining that development of the Alaskan refuge would generate 735,000 jobs.

But that claim was disputed by environmentalists who said the number comes from a 1990 study done at the request of the American Petroleum Institute and assumed $48-a-barrel oil and that refuge oil would dramatically force down oil prices, generating economic growth.

“These numbers are from a flawed study done a decade ago,” said Adam Kolton of the Alaska Wilderness League.

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The bill coming up in the House includes billions of dollars in energy tax breaks, a variety of conservation measures and expansion of clean coal and other energy research and development programs.

The outcome of both the Arctic refuge and automobile fuel economy, of CAFE standards, issues could depend on how moderate Republicans decide to vote, members of both parties said.

The vote on drilling in the refuge is expected to be “very, very close,” said Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the House majority whip, who has spearheaded the House GOP campaign to get the energy bill, including the ANWR provision, through the House.

In an attempt to peel some votes from the opposition, drilling supporters planned to offer proposals aimed at protecting the refuge as part of a drilling package, said Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La. One proposal would require some oil revenue to go toward environmental protection in the refuge.

That is not expected to appease environmentalists who argue that any drilling will harm the refuge’s wildlife.

“We’re about to have the most important environmental vote of the 107th Congress, … a litmus test for the environment for all members of Congress,” declared Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., at a rally of anti-drilling forces outside the Capitol. The backdrop included boxes of postcards to Congress – 400,000 of the them, according to lawmakers – urging continued protection of the refuge.

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