Senators spar over proposal to drill in Alaska wildlife refuge

Senators spar over proposal to drill in Alaska wildlife refuge
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Lawmakers on Thursday fought over the possibility of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the opening act of a legislative push to allow oil production in the Alaskan Arctic.

Republicans from Alaska and on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee cast drilling in the refuge as an operation that can be done safety and one that would help the economies in both the state and the nation.

But Democrats vowed to fight drilling there, saying the area is too ecologically important to allow industrial production.

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“The economic benefits will be substantial, our national security will be strengthened and the environmental impact will be minimal,” Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Week ahead: Trump expected to shrink two national monuments GOP on verge of opening Arctic refuge to drilling MORE (R-Alaska), the chairwoman of the committee, said during a hearing.

“Because Alaskans have been so careful with development, fears of impacts to our wildlife and lands have been proven wrong.”

The hearing — a four-hour-long marathon meeting — was the first time lawmakers have considered ANWR drilling since the Senate passed a budget resolution last month requiring the panel to find $1 billion in revenues or savings over the next 10 years. At the time, the Senate voted down an amendment to strip the provision from the resolution.

Opening up parts of a 1.5 million acre portion of the 19 million acre refuge for drilling is a key priority for Murkowski and other Alaskans, who say production in the region would create jobs and government revenue deeply important for a state dependent on fossil fuel production.

“I believe it would be many multiples” of $1 billion in revenue, Alaska Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott (D) said, though the Interior Department has just recently moved to reassess supplies of oil and viability of drilling in the ANWR.

“The impact on the economy of the state and nation are each very clear,” he added. “The opportunity to allow the nation and our state to have revenue, not just to meet the full range of existing legislative needs but to be responsive to a changing climate, is very real and must be addressed.”

Republicans from Alaska made an economic case for drilling in the ANWR but also argued scientific advances in the drilling sector would allow it to be done safety.

But Democrats said the region is too unique and environmentally sensitive to take any risks. They argued any production would harm wildlife in the region, including the migratory habits of a caribou herd that is sacred to local tribes.

“We’re not sitting here asking for anything,” said Samuel Alexander, a member of the Gwich’in tribe, which is located in the region and opposes drilling in the ANWR.

“We’re not saying we need hospitals, we need schools, we need all these things. We’re not saying, give us money. We’re saying let us live as Gwich’in. … When we talk about the land, when we talk about the caribou, it’s in reverence to them.”

The hearing was more tense than most Energy and Natural Resources meetings.

Republicans dismissed Democrats’ concerns over drilling, saying they took criticisms over the plan personally. Rep. Don YoungDonald (Don) Edwin YoungRyan picks his negotiating team for tax cut bill Alaska senator proposes drilling in Arctic refuge Overnight Energy: Perry takes heat for sexual assault comments | Clovis withdraws nomination for USDA post | Battle lines drawn on Arctic refuge drilling | Energy regulator back to full strength MORE (R-Alaska), who testified on Thursday, called opposition to the plan “ignorance and misinformation from those who would have no energy development at all.”

“For those of us who call Alaska home, to suggest that we would despoil our environment for short-term gain is offensive,” Murkowski said.

But Democrats slammed the GOP’s approach to the ANWR debate, tying it to a Republican tax reform package to which Republicans will attach any ANWR provision.

Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellAvalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Week ahead: Trump expected to shrink two national monuments Live coverage: Senate Republicans pass tax bill MORE (D-Wash.) called it an effort to “drill and destroy” parts of the Alaskan wilderness.

“We’re here today because someone has come up with a ludicrous idea that we can pass a tax reform bill that increases our deficit, raises our taxes, and will take a sliver out of a wildlife refuge to do it,” she said.