With higher gas prices hurting US consumers and threatening to slow the US economy, US President George W. Bush has relaunched a drive to wean the country from oil imports by stimulating the domestic energy industry.
But the effort has put Bush on a new crash course with environmentalists, who say the proposed incentives for energy companies to increase production will damage the environment while doing little to motivate conservation.
The fight is focused, as in the first Bush term, on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska which oil companies believe holds millions of barrels of oil, but which conservationists say is too pristine and sensitive to open for drilling.
"To produce more energy at home, we need to open up new areas to environmentally responsible exploration for oil and natural gas," Bush said in a speech last week in Ohio, adding that it was "for the sake of our country."
Prices at US gasoline pumps have surged and airlines have raised ticket prices as oil prices neared or broke records in major world trading centers this past week.
As a government study predicted the high prices will continue through summer, economists worried the trend could hurt the summer tourism industry.
"Higher prices at the gas pump, and rising home heating bills and the possibility of blackouts are legitimate concerns for all Americans," Bush said.
"These uncertainties about energy supply are dragging our economy," he said.
The sweeping energy bill aims at reducing the country's dependence on imported oil and gas by providing incentives to develop more domestic energy resources, including coal and nuclear power. It also supports research into hydrogen-based energy possibilities.
Conservationists say the bill does nothing to encourage using less energy, for instance by penalizing the most fuel-hungry automobiles. But the most contentious issue is the government's effort to open up the protected ANWR for oil and gas exploration.
Situated north of the Arctic Circle, the sprawling plain is home to large herds of caribou, polar bears, wolves and 150 species of birds.
According to the American Petroleum Institute, the ground beneath ANWR could contain more than 10 billion barrels of oil.
Environmentalists say this amount would have a negligible impact on US energy security.
"Drilling there would not put a dent in our dependence on foreign oil and would not save consumers a dime at the pump," said Carl Pope, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, one of the most powerful US conservation groups. "But the harm to wildlife and this spectacular wilderness would be permanent and irreparable."
Since 1991, the US Congress has consistently rejected opening ANWR to oil drilling, the most recent occasion in 2003, when a number of senators in Bush' own Republican Party opposed it.
Hoping to woo opponents, Bush now emphasizes the new oil exploration techniques which would minimize the damage to the ANWR tundra.
"Thanks to advances in technology," Bush said in Ohio, "we can now reach all of ANWR by drilling on just two thousand acres [809 hectares]."
"By applying the most innovative environmental practices we can carry out the project with almost no impact on land and local wildlife," he said.