Plan Would Link Retired Steelworkers' Aid To Alaska Drilling

By CLAUDE R. MARX, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - Oil and water don't mix, but some senators want to see what happens when oil and steel are combined.

They are trying to pick up votes for the Bush administration's proposal to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska by linking it to health care and retirement benefits for certain steel industry retirees, a key constituency in political battleground states such as Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Florida and Ohio.

"We need more votes to pass our proposal (for drilling) and supporters of helping out steel companies need more votes. This would help both sides," said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.

Supporters will try to add the steel provision to the drilling amendment Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, plans to offer to the energy bill this week. A portion of revenue from drilling would be used to pay some of the health and pension costs of about 600,000 retirees from bankrupt steel companies.

Without outside help, those retirees are in danger of losing benefits because the companies cannot afford to pay them.

Drilling opponents -- even some who support helping the steel industry -- reject the idea of linking the issues.

"Frankly, it's a little mean-spirited to say that the only way we are going to help our steelworkers and their families is if we harm the environment and line the pockets of the oil industry," said Allison Dobson, a spokeswoman for Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn.

More than 30 steel companies have filed for bankruptcy since 1998. Companies such as US Steel that have expressed interest in buying the assets of some of the bankrupt firms have said they will not do so unless the government assumes the health care costs of retirees.

But when President Bush last month announced tariffs of up to 30 percent on certain kinds of foreign steel, he declined to provide money to cover pension and health care costs for retirees. Industry and union officials estimate such a bailout would cost about $10 billion.

The top two officials of the Senate Steel Caucus want more information on the proposal to mix oil and steel before deciding whether to support it.

"It would provide an interesting coalition. It would all depend on the specifics," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the caucus chairman, who has not announced his position on allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Vice Chairman John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va., has opposed drilling in Alaska but said, "I have an absolute and moral obligation to consider this proposal."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)