WASHINGTON - By the barest margin, the Senate voted Wednesday in favor of opening Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, marking a turning point in a decadeslong fight between environmentalists and the petroleum industry.
The action marks the first time the Senate has signaled its support for drilling in the ecologically sensitive area since President Bush took office. And while hurdles remain, drilling advocates said they were close to achieving their goal of tapping billions of barrels of oil beneath the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain.
By a 51-49 vote, the Senate thwarted an attempt by most Democrats and some moderate Republicans to strip a wildlife refuge drilling provision from the congressional 2006 budget resolution.
Arizona Sen. John McCain was among seven moderate Republicans who voted against the measure. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., voted in favor of it.
Kyl said the victory was markedly important on the day that experts predicted the nation’s average price per gallon of gasoline would reach an all-time high.
"Just think if we had done this 10 years ago, we would have had lower oil and gas prices now," Kyl said. "It took people a while to realize there will be no environmental damage from this."
McCain’s office could not be reached for comment.
By giving the drilling proposal the protection of the budget rules, GOP leaders have effectively blocked opponents from using a filibuster to block a final vote on the proposal.
Congress used a similar approach in approving the drilling as part of a budget bill in 1995 over the strong objection of environmentalists, but President Bill Clinton later vetoed the measure.
This time, supporters are bolstered by a Republican president who has made drilling a key platform of his energy policy, a GOP-controlled House that has repeatedly gone on record in favor of drilling, and a Senate whose Republican majority grew by four seats in last November’s election.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a leader in the fight to stop drilling, said there would be ‘‘a lot more opportunities to make an effort to strike it.’’ But he acknowledged, ‘‘The Republicans have the votes in the House and they have the votes in conference.’’
The Senate and House still must agree on a final version of next year’s budget, and already there are signs that the two chambers strongly disagree on the size of proposed Medicaid cuts and other key spending issues.
Drilling proponents said producing more domestic oil would help bring down energy prices, provide jobs and ease the country’s growing trade imbalance. They also argued that modern technology would limit the area needed to drill.
But opponents disagreed, saying drilling would do little to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and that there would be virtually no impact on prices, which are set as a result of activity on the world market.
Using posters showing panoramic views of pristine wilderness, opponents also said that pipelines and drilling platforms would harm calving caribou, polar bears and millions of migratory birds in the ecologically sensitive area.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the prospects for opening the refuge are much stronger than in previous years. ‘‘The chances of this happening are excellent,’’ he said. ‘‘There is a legislative path to getting this done. The path is passing a budget resolution that has (the refuge) in both houses.’’
The key Senate vote was on an amendment championed by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., to drop the drilling approval from the budget resolution.
Three Democrats — Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka of Hawaii and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana — joined with 48 Republicans to defeat the measure.
Seven Republicans, 41 Democrats and one independent voted in favor of eliminating the drilling provision.
During a news conference before the vote, Bush expressed concern about rising energy prices and again pressed for the opening of the refuge as part of a package of energy legislation that the administration has been pushing.
‘‘This project will keep our economy growing by creating jobs and ensuring that businesses can expand,’’ Bush said in a statement after the vote.
If Congress approves the Alaskan drilling, oil industry officials said it probably would take another seven to 10 years before oil begins flowing from the ground. Oil production already occurs near the refuge on Alaska’s North Slope.
Government models forecast that oil companies would be able to pump nearly 1 million barrels a day from the refuge in 2025.
With oil from the refuge, the United States would import about 65 percent of its oil in 2025, compared with about 68 percent without the additional domestic oil, according to data from the Energy Department’s Energy Information Administration.
In some previous years, drilling in the refuge was defeated because proponents could not muster the 60 votes needed to cut off a filibuster.
The budget resolution cannot be filibustered and only a 51-vote majority was needed.
Once both chambers approve budget resolutions, they will go to a conference committee where GOP leaders will attempt to iron out differences. The budget would then go back to the House and Senate for final approval.
If the drilling provision remains in the budget, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the Senate and the House Resources Committee in the House would have to approve details for refuge drilling.
Those measures would need only majority support and would not be subject to filibuster.