MILWAUKEE - Both Republican candidates in Wisconsin's U.S. Senate race want to see an environmentally sensitive region of Alaska land opened up to oil drilling, a solution they say would help avoid such catastrophes as the BP oil spill fouling the Gulf of Mexico.

Sen. Russ Feingold, the Democratic incumbent, disagreed, saying the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is too sensitive to withstand large-scale drilling.

In interviews with The Associated Press, businessmen Ron Johnson of Oshkosh and Dave Westlake of Watertown said it's safer to drill in Alaska's so-called ANWR (pronounced ON'-wahr) region because any spill would be immediately accessible to emergency crews.

"ANWR may be environmentally sensitive but it may be easier to drill up there and with less environmental impact than trying to drill in very deep water," Johnson said. "You know, these oil rigs are being forced so far offshore. By doing that we're just increasing the risks."

Johnson and Westlake will square off in a Republican primary in September. The winner will take on Feingold.

The Gulf of Mexico leak has proved difficult to stop because oil is spewing nearly a mile underwater. That's presented a host of problems to oil crews, whose every strategy to stop it so far has failed.

Westlake acknowledged that the spill is devastating. Still, he said, it's one isolated incident that shouldn't set back oil-drilling efforts that have otherwise proved manageable.

"History shows that we can do this safely," Westlake said. "We've had one disaster, one terrible disaster. But everything else has been done successfully and safely for years."

Not so, Feingold said. There was the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 that spewed 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound, he noted.

"They want to pretend this is a fluke, that it can't happen again," he said. "Well, that's a position they can take."

A more important solution is to end the "cozy relationship" between the oil companies and government, he added.

"We had some of the biggest pro-oil people in the history of our country running our country for eight years under (former President George W.) Bush and (his Vice President Dick) Cheney," Feingold said. "That coziness is what we need to end."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has held public hearings about the future of ANWR, the 19.6-million-acre refuge in the northeast corner of Alaska. The region contains a 1.5-million acre coastal plain that's believed to contain an estimated 11 billion barrels of recoverable oil.

The region has been a battleground for decades. On one side are environmentalists who don't want drilling and oil companies in the area. On the other are Alaska officials who see a large, untapped resource that could ease the country's dependence on foreign oil.

When asked whether the Gulf spill should prompt more caution before undertaking new oil-drilling projects, Johnson said no. There are lessons to be learned, he said, but he has strong faith in American technology and ingenuity for drilling safely and with minimal environmental impact.

Between 22 million and 47 million gallons of crude oil have spewed into the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded on April 20, according to government estimates. Eleven workers were killed in the blast.

Some say the spill reflects a shortcoming of President Barack Obama's administration. Neither Johnson nor Westlake agreed with such criticism, as each Republican noted that an administration can do only so much to prepare for the unknown.

Feingold, Johnson and Westlake agree that oil drilling in some form is a vital part of America's long-term energy policy. Feingold said he opposed drilling in ANWR but favored drilling only in areas that have already been properly vetted for environmental safety.

Obama visited the Gulf Coast on Friday for the third time since the April 20 blowout. He cited signs of apparent progress but said it's "way to early to be optimistic" about BP's latest attempt to plug the leak.

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Online:

Dept. of Energy fact sheet on Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: http://tinyurl.com/38wspk4

 

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