The Senate is preparing to vote on a tax bill that — remarkably and inexplicably — includes an unrelated provision to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of America’s last wild, pristine places and the crown jewel of our nation’s refuge system. This is an appalling use of the legislative process that needs to be struck down because it “sneaks in” oil drilling on a bill requiring only 51 votes.
Like a small tumor, the Arctic Refuge oil drilling provision needs to be immediately cut from the tax bill by amendment. The 1.5 million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is widely recognized as the biological heart of the refuge and is as important to our nation’s natural heritage as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.
Energy committee chair Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiGOP warns McConnell won't blink on debt cliff Graham tries to help Trump and McConnell bury the hatchet Trump, allies launch onslaught as midterms kick into gear MORE (R-Alaska) and other pro-drilling members of Congress have not succeeded previously in enacting a bill to allow drilling in this spectacularly beautiful home of wild caribou, threatened polar bears and breeding birds from all 50 states.
Significant policy measures such as a bill allowing drilling in a federally-protected area typically require bipartisan support and 60 Senate votes, a process known as regular order. Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellDemocrats demand more action from feds on unruly airline passengers Delta variant's spread hampers Labor Day air travel, industry recovery Wyden asks White House for details on jet fuel shortage amid wildfire season MORE (D-Wash.), who is the ranking member on the energy committee along with other Democrats and Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsCollins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid McConnell privately urged GOP senators to oppose debt ceiling hike GOP senator will 'probably' vote for debt limit increase MORE (R-Maine) and John McCainJohn Sidney McCainWhoopi Goldberg signs four-year deal with ABC to stay on 'The View' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Meghan McCain: Country has not 'healed' from Trump under Biden MORE (R-Ariz.) have voted in the past to prevent oil drilling in the 19.3 million-acre Arctic Refuge.
As an engineer and an Alaskan, I made the following points in testimony against including oil drilling in the refuge to the energy committee several weeks ago:
- Estimated Arctic Refuge drilling revenue is small enough to be incidental as a revenue offset to the $1.5 trillion tax bill, and thus should not be included in the bill.
- Trans-Alaska oil pipeline flow that provides revenue to Alaska has increased during the past two years, and state projections show increased flow for at least the next decade. Future increases are expected to occur without any oil production from federally-protected lands such as the highly-sensitive coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge.
- Oil and gas drilling and production is inherently complicated and messy and would destroy the pristine environment of the refuge. Even the best and most well-financed operators cannot ensure they will not spill crude oil, hazardous materials or contaminated water from wells, pipelines, storage and transfer facilities, and processing facilities. Nor can operators prevent all well blowouts because they may encounter unexpected or changing conditions, as was the case for BP with its April 2017 Arctic production-well blowout determined to have been caused by thawing permafrost.
- Directional drilling does not eliminate any of the risks of conventional/vertical well drilling. Well-related risks might even be increased because directional drilling is a more difficult, complex operation to monitor and control.
- Drilling proponents routinely say operations would affect only 2,000 acres of the coastal plain but they do not include all of the related infrastructure, such as roads, gravel mines and pipelines. Drill pads would not be consolidated and would be located throughout the Arctic Refuge coastal plain.
- Long-distance pipelines and roads would negatively impact the Porcupine Caribou Herd, which uses the coastal plain as a vital calving ground, and goes there each year avoid insects and predators. Pregnant and nursing caribou tend to avoid roads and pipelines so it is critical that sensitive habitat is protected from activities and infrastructure. Additionally, oil drilling would result in large amounts of water removed from streams important to fish, and from wetlands important to migratory bird species.
Finally, as Sam Alexander of the Gwich’in Nation from northern Alaska/northwestern Canada testified at the energy committee hearing, “The land is essential to our way of life; it provides us sustenance, and we view it as sacred. The caribou come from a place we call Izhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit, the sacred place where life begins. And these very grounds are being threatened by oil development.”
The bottom line is that Arctic Refuge drilling was included in the budget process not to meet budget targets, but to force a controversial measure through Congress. For nearly four decades, there has been bipartisan support for protecting this special place. Oil drilling does not belong in the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge.
Lois Epstein is an Alaska-licensed engineer and the Arctic program director for The Wilderness Society.