Two dozen House Republicans, including three committee chairmen, have directly opposed the Bush administration’s effort to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling by sneaking it through the budget approval process.

“An effort to include the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the [budget] reconciliation will further complicate an already difficult situation,” they wrote last month in a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo and Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle.

Rep. Jeb Bradley (R-N.H.) asked moderate Republicans to join him in signing the letter, calling on the Republican House leaders not to include language that would allow oil and gas exploration in the wildlife refuge.

The GOP signers said they “would have serious concerns about any budget bill that contains provisions authorizing the development of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” They continued, “As you know, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge represents one of the last large pristine natural environments left in our country. In 1980 Congress recognized the need to protect this national treasure and prohibited any oil and gas drilling or exploration on the coastal plain. We believe that the debate on opening this unique land to oil and gas exploration should be done outside of the budget process, not as part of an omnibus bill.”

The ANWR group is notable because it includes a trio of committee chairmen: Science Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) and Government Reform Chairman Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.).

Several of the signers were prompted to sign through a successful e-mail campaign initiated by the Sierra Club in July. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) said in a reply to constituents who contacted him through the e-mail campaign that he is and will remain strongly opposed to any legislation that would authorize oil and gas exploration of the Arctic Refuge.

The Senate voted in March to remove the Arctic drilling provision from the budget, but the House failed to do so in April by only three votes. While the House has approved drilling in ANWR in the past, GOP leaders have little room for error on budget measures, which typically pass with a two- or three-vote margin. Opposition from such a significant bloc of House Republicans underscores the difficulty GOP leaders face in putting together a package that can pass in both chambers.

The House Resources Committee will decide the outcome by Sept. 16.