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Nov 15, 12:07 PM EST

Arctic refuge drilling closer as Senate panel moves ahead



WASHINGTON (AP) -- Oil and gas drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is moving ever closer after a nearly four-decade political standoff.

A key Senate panel began debate Wednesday on a bill to open the remote refuge to energy exploration - a longtime Republican priority that Democrats fiercely oppose.

Republican Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski says drilling would generate $2 billion in royalties over the next decade, with half the money going to her home state.

Environmental groups and other critics call those projections wildly optimistic, saying low global oil prices and high exploration costs could limit drilling.

A bill sponsored by Murkowski calls for two lease sales over the next decade in at least 400,000 acres (625 square miles) each in the refuge's coastal plain.

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