WASHINGTON -- A bitterly divided Senate on Wednesday approved oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as Florida Sen. Mel Martinez cast a pivotal vote.
Against the backdrop of soaring energy prices, the Senate voted 51-49 to open Alaska's ecologically rich wildlife refuge to drilling, delivering a major energy-policy win for President Bush and a blow to environmentalists and Democrats.
Martinez, intensely lobbied by both sides in the debate, said he voted for the drilling only after getting a promise from the Bush administration to extend a moratorium on drilling off Florida's shores by five years.
Environmentalists say the petroleum industry and congressional supporters see the vote for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a step toward opening areas offshore from Florida and other coastal states.
After the vote, Martinez announced he had negotiated with the White House and the Interior Department to obtain the extension of the current moratorium on oil and natural-gas drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. The moratorium, due to expire in 2007, was extended to 2012.
"I am pleased that we have until the year 2012," Martinez, a Republican freshman senator, said. "It breaks any cycle of activity between ANWR and Florida. By the year 2012, it will be difficult to say, 'Because we decided to drill in ANWR back in 2005 that means we can drill in Florida as well.' "
Martinez said he also plans to introduce legislation that would make the moratorium permanent and impose a similar ban on exploration along the Atlantic coast of Florida.
Florida's senior senator, Democrat Bill Nelson, voted against drilling.
The drilling provision, tucked into a budget bill, would allow the Interior Department to lease tracts to energy companies to dig exploratory wells in a remote corner of northern Alaska that is considered one of the few truly wild places in the nation, a fragile ecosystem and a sanctuary for wildlife, including caribou and polar bears.
The House is expected to pass a similar measure, and President Bush is eager to sign it into law. The Senate has long been the toughest test for drilling proponents.
The budget bill as a whole, however, must still survive further debate in the Senate. A final vote is expected this week. Some House members, meanwhile, are reluctant to consider refuge drilling as part of the budget process, leaving the final results uncertain.
Republican leaders added the controversial provision to a budget bill because under Senate rules it cannot be filibustered. Proponents would need 60 votes to break a filibuster but a simple majority to approve budget matters.
Wednesday's vote came on an amendment to remove the drilling provision from the bill; drilling opponents fell two votes short.
Bush had tried but failed to push through an energy bill in his first term. This year Republicans retained control of the White House and the House of Representatives, and gained four seats in the Senate.
Martinez, former Orange County chairman, was elected last year with backing from the White House and replaced retiring Democrat Bob Graham.
"Today the U.S. Senate cast a vote for America's energy security," Interior Secretary Gale Norton said.
Norton contends that the nation must tap its energy sources to become less dependent on foreign supplies, particularly from the volatile Middle East. She promised Wednesday that drilling in the Arctic would not damage the environment.
"This energy production would generate billions of dollars in revenue for the federal Treasury as well as the state of Alaska," she said.
Norton secured Martinez's vote by extending the moratorium and by promising not to offer new leases within 100 miles of Florida's coastline in the Gulf, even outside the moratorium area.
"We know that in Florida, government officials and most residents oppose offshore energy production and are proud of and want to protect their beautiful white sand beaches," she told him in a letter.
Oil companies, backed by leaders from Alaska and other energy-rich states, long have sought access to the Arctic refuge because seismic and geological data indicate it could contain more than 10 billion barrels worth of crude oil. Energy companies say, however, they won't know just how much oil or natural gas lies under the tundra until they dig exploratory wells.
Drilling opponents vowed Wednesday to keep lobbying Congress and rallying the public.
Some of the strongest opposition to drilling has come from Florida, where environmentalists warn that opening the Arctic could lead to drilling off the state's shores. They were doubtful about Norton's pledge to extend the moratorium in the Gulf.
"The reality is that whatever they say beyond when George Bush leaves office doesn't have any weight, because the next administration can do whatever it wants," said Charles Lee, chief advocate for Audubon of Florida. "Obviously, the moratorium is only as stable as Congress allows it to remain. The same pressures that resulted in the Senate vote will surely come to bear on the Gulf."
Martinez acknowledged that the moratorium extension might not be enforceable beyond the current administration but said the deal will buy time while he seeks a permanent ban.
Asked if he was sacrificing Alaska's environment to protect his own state, Martinez said most Alaskans favor drilling in the wildlife refuge.
"I would understand how some might view it as a problem, but at the end of the day, it's going to be done responsibly, it's going to help the nation, and the people in Alaska are very, very adamant about it," he said.
Wire services contributed to this report. William E. Gibson is a reporter for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.