By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON, Sept 23 (Reuters) - A senior House Democrat on Monday warned the Bush administration and the U.S. oil industry against using the threat of war in Iraq as justification for opening an Alaskan wilderness area to oil and gas drilling.
Later this week, House-Senate negotiators on a major energy bill are expected to debate whether to open the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas development. The idea is a centerpiece of the White House's energy policy.
The Republican-led House of Representatives approved the provision, but Democrats who control the Senate rejected it as a threat to the refuge's animal life and unnecessary if tougher conservation methods were adopted.
Congress is trying to finish the energy bill this year, but still must work out House-Senate differences on a range of issues in addition to ANWR, including updated automobile fuel-efficiency standards, ethanol production and climate change provisions.
Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, the senior Democrat on the House Energy panel, accused the White House of trying to win ANWR drilling rights for oil firms by linking the issue to potential oil disruptions if the United States attacks Iraq.
"We are not going to allow a declaration of war against (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein to be used as a cover for the Bush administration's environmental offices to declare war against the environment," Markey said at an environmental rally on Capitol Hill.
Military strikes against Iraq would cut off the nation's roughly 2 million barrels per day of oil exports to the world oil market. Iraq ranked as the sixth biggest foreign oil supplier to the United States last year, although shipments have sharply dropped in recent months.
Markey added that, "Right now, all over this city, are meetings that are being conducted by oil industry executives trying to find a way, using the cover of a potential war with Saddam Hussein to include a provision, which allows the drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge."
Markey released a letter written to the House-Senate negotiators, signed by 110 House Democrats, calling on them to reject any drilling in ANWR and its 19 million acres (7.7 million hectares).
Oil industry executives have acknowledged that even if Congress agreed to open ANWR, it would take several years for oil to start flowing and about eight years to reach peak production of 1 million barrels per day.
President George W. Bush, during a campaign swing through New Jersey on Monday, called on Congress to pass energy legislation this year.
While he didn't mention ANWR by name, Bush said the bill endorsed by Congress should be one that "encourages an increase of supply here at home so we're less dependent on foreign sources of crude oil." Bush is a former Texas oilman.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton recently said she would recommend the president veto any final energy bill that fails to include drilling in ANWR.
Last week, Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, the chairman of the House Energy Committee, indicated a willingness to accept Democratic climate change legislation in return for including ANWR drilling in the energy bill.
U.S. environmental groups oppose such a tradeoff.
Athan Manuel, of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, said he thought Tauzin's idea had not gained much steam since last week.
Manuel said he was more concerned about a potential "deal" by House-Senate negotiators that would allow ANWR drilling in return for cordoning off other Alaskan lands from development.