Senate committee approves drilling in Alaskan wildlife refuge

Senate committee approves drilling in Alaskan wildlife refuge
© Getty Images

The Senate Energy panel approved legislation Wednesday allowing for oil and gas drilling in a section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska.

The legislation is highly controversial, with Democrats and environmentalists slamming Senate Republicans for mandating new revenue from Arctic drilling as part of their tax-reform push.

But GOP supporters of the legislation said Wednesday the drilling proposal is good for both Alaska, an energy-dependent state, and the federal government. Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiSessions torched by lawmakers for marijuana move Calif. Republican attacks Sessions over marijuana policy Trump's executive order on minerals will boost national defense MORE (R-Alaska), who has long made ANWR drilling one of her top legislative priorities, said oil development won’t impact the refuge as much as opponents of the plan warn it will.

ADVERTISEMENT

“If we move forward with development, we will do it right. We will take care of our wildlife, our lands and our people,” she said during a hearing of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which she chairs.

“Alaskans will do this the right way. We will protect our environment while providing substantial economic benefits all across America,” she said.

Murkowski’s bill directs the Interior Department to hold lease sales for up to 800,000 acres of land in ANWR within the next decade, with the federal government and Alaska sharing any potential royalties from production there. It would raise $1.092 billion for the federal government over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Any drilling in ANWR will take place in a 1.5-million-acre section of the refuge on Alaska’s North Slope. ANWR itself is a 19.3-million-acre expanse in northeastern Alaska.

The Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved the bill on a 13-10 vote, with only Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinMcConnell to Dems: Don't hold government 'hostage' over DACA Lawmakers see shutdown’s odds rising Senate campaign fundraising reports roll in MORE (D-W.Va.) voting against his party.

Democrats, led by ranking member Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellSenate Finance Dems want more transparency on trade from Trump Overnight Energy: Senate close to approving Arctic drilling | EPA cancels controversial media tracking contract | Trump officials sound alarm on mineral imports Lawmakers introduce bipartisan AI legislation MORE (Wash.), lambasted the bill on environmental and economic grounds.

They warned that drilling in any section of ANWR will risk the habitat of caribou and other animals and undermine the idea of setting aside the region as a wildlife area.

“It turns this coastal plane and wildlife refuge into an oil field,” Cantwell said.

They also tied the bill to a GOP tax-reform package. Under a budget resolution adopted earlier this year, the Energy and Natural Resources Committee was instructed to find $1 billion in revenue to help pay for the tax-reform effort, meaning the fate of ANWR drilling and a tax overhaul are linked.

“This is not a serious budget proposal: It’s a cynical effort to open up the heart of the Arctic refuge for oil,” Cantwell said.

Republicans and many Alaskans have long pushed to open up a portion of ANWR for drilling. They argue its especially important now, given the need for revenue as part of the tax bill and for the struggling Alaskan economy, which is largely based around natural resources development and has been hit hard by a decline in global oil prices.

Murkowski pledged Wednesday that drilling in the region would create “thousands” of jobs in Alaska and reduce American oil prices so much that it would be akin to “an energy tax cut.”

She also said any drilling in the region would protect the refuge as a whole, contending advancements in the oil industry mean drilling there is safer and has a smaller footprint, and insisting environmental reviews are still required before development can go forward.

“Some have claimed we’re on the verge of destroying ANWR with development, but we’re talking about only 2,000 federal acres — just one-ten-thousandth of ANWR itself,” she said.

“While we can be confident of those benefits, we can be equally confident none of this will come at the expense of the environment. … Development and environmental protection can and do exist in Alaska.”

But Democrats questioned her promises. They introduced a series of amendments designed to water down the drilling bill, including those to require drilling only if its compatible with wildlife protection measures, certify that oil leases elsewhere in Alaska are tapped out before opening up ANWR, and blocking companies with environmental violations from developing there. Republicans voted down those and other amendments.

“I’m sure at the heart of [this proposal] is the interest of Alaskans,” Cantwell said.

“But the notion that oil prices have fallen, and the state has been over-reliant on oil, does not mean we should be destroying a wildlife refuge today,” she said.

—Updated at 1:38 p.m.