Washington — The Democratic-led Senate voted Wednesday to bar coal mining and oil and gas drilling on pristine federally protected land in the West, dealing a fresh blow to President Bush's energy production plans.
The 57-42 roll call aligned the Senate with the House, which voted last month to ban mineral extraction from the monuments after Democrats there won support from moderate Republicans. The two chambers' votes make it likely that the prohibition will be included in the compromise spending bill for the Interior Department that they will write in coming weeks.
The vote came as House Republicans began crafting a scaled-back energy package that they hope to pass by August.
The Senate proposal, offered by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., was supported by 46 Democrats, 10 Republicans and one independent and opposed by 38 Republicans and four Democrats. It would forbid new mining and drilling while allowing ongoing operations to proceed.
Durbin acted after the Interior Department said there are significant energy reserves inside national monuments designated by former President Clinton, including large low-sulfur coal deposits in the 1.7-million acre Grand Staircase Escalante National monument in Utah.
Durbin argued that drilling for oil on the federally protected lands wasn't worth it. "President Bush needs to realize that damaging these irreplaceable lands is not going to solve America's energy crisis, but could cause a crisis in conservation," he said.
But opponents said closing off mineral exploration in the monuments would be short-sighted in light of the country's energy problems.
Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., said Durbin's proposal amounted to "hiding behind the screen of green and throwing out all logic on the management of those lands." And Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, said the ban would force the country "to go begging to the thieves in the Middle East."
The Senate then began debating an amendment by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., that would delay a Bush administration effort to open part of the Gulf of Mexico to oil and gas exploration. The House has already approved the same provision, which would delay final lease agreements until April 1. Opponents of offshore drilling say this would give them time to work out an agreement.
In the House, where four committees were considering various energy proposals, Republicans said they plan to assemble an energy bill by next week. The measure would likely require automakers to boost the fuel economy of popular sport utility vehicles and allow drilling in an Arctic wildlife refuge.