Developing additional Alaska oil is so essential that President Bush may veto energy legislation that does not include opening a wildlife refuge to drilling, Energy Secretary James Watkins says.

Watkins told the Senate Energy Committee that it would be "a tragic mistake" not to produce oil along the coastal strip of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in far northern Alaska.Drilling in the refuge is essential to "any kind of a viable energy strategy that makes any sense at all," Watkins said, adding that President Bush might veto an energy package that does not include it.

Environmentalists have succeeded for a decade in blocking attempts to open the refuge. They argue that the region should be protected from further environmental harm and that oil from the refuge would do little to reduce America's reliance on imports petroleum.

"It would only extend our addiction to oil," said George Frampton, president of the Wilderness Society.

The Energy Committee is considering a broad energy package of legislation. The panel's chairman, Sen. Bennett Johnston, D-La., has insisted that the package include not only conservation measures but expanded oil production including drilling in the arctic refuge.

The petroleum industry believes the arctic refuge offers the best chance for a major oil discovery in the United States.