By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Democrats vowed on Tuesday to fight a measure expected to be slipped into budget legislation that would open Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Reserve to oil and gas drilling, saying it would destroy one of earth's remaining paradises.
Northern Alaska's ANWR is a wilderness about the size of South Carolina that supports tribes that have fished and hunted there for thousands of years and is home to polar bears, caribou and birds vulnerable to development.
A plan passed by the Senate budget committee late last month contains a directive for the Senate energy committee to draw up a provision securing $1 billion in revenue for the budget, which is expected to be voted on late Thursday.
The head of the energy panel, Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican and a longtime proponent of drilling in ANWR, is expected to write a provision opening the reserve. She and Senator Dan Sullivan, also an Alaska Republican, have both supported measures to open up parts of ANWR.
"This Republican budget scam to hand over the wildest place left in America to Big Oil should be removed from the budget and put on ice," said Senator Edward Markey.
Senator Jeff Merkley said there is "something cynical and sad" about the effort because it could boost oil output from the U.S. state that is already feeling the fastest effects of climate change, which the overwhelming majority of scientists link to human-caused carbon emissions.
An environmentalist said Republicans were trying to sneak drilling into the budget and eliminate opportunities for debate.
Lydia Weiss, the director of government relations at the Wilderness Society, called it an "unacceptable abuse of Senate procedure" and said Americans deserve to see the Senate debate the issue in the open.
Petroleum interests have long lobbied to explore in the area and say technology advances mean the impact of operations on the reserve would be smaller than in years past.
Still, it is uncertain whether energy companies that have faced static crude prices amid a wealth of oil and gas in the continental United States would be willing to increase drilling in the harsh and frigid Arctic.
Markey said the group is reaching out to Republicans for support in opposition to the drilling amendment, which likely will need 50 votes in the 100-member chamber to pass. Democrats hope Republican senators John McCain and Susan Collins, who have previously voted against drilling, will support them.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Matthew Lewis)