Energy & Environment

Republicans renew push for drilling in Alaska wildlife refuge

Getty Images

Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s ascent to the top of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee is likely to reignite the decades-old debate over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

Alaskans have been fighting for the right to drill in wilderness on their state’s northern shore since 1977, when the government first punted on the question of whether to allow oil exploration.

{mosads}The new role for Murkowski (R-Alaska), a long-time advocate for drilling, presents the best chance Alaskans have had in years to extract oil from the refuge, which is about the size of Delaware. Murkowski advocated opening up 2,000 acres in ANWR for drilling in a policy blueprint she released last year.

GOP control of Congress helps her cause, potentially clearing the way for legislation to reach President Obama’s desk.

Murkowski identified drilling in the area as a top priority in a post-election interview with the Alaska Dispatch News, but noted that Obama’s presence in the White House will be an obstacle.

“ANWR, even with the chairmanship, is not a given that we can advance an ANWR initiative to successful passage,” Murkowski said. “You’ve got a president that is pretty committed to drawing a line in the sand. That doesn’t mean we won’t push it and push it very hard.”

Robert Dillon, Murkowski’s spokesman, declined to divulge her plans for next year, but emphasized that Murkowski has a long history of advocating for ANWR drilling.

“ANWR certainly remains one of Sen. Murkowski’s top priorities,” Dillon said. “She introduces ANWR legislation every Congress, and has two bills in right now.”

Murkowski’s two perennial ANWR bills differ in the kind of exploration they would allow. One would permit well pads in the refuge, while another would only allow horizontal drilling from nearby state lands.

Environmentalists are gearing up to fight any attempts to open ANWR to oil companies, and predict they will win the fight to preserve the land and its abundance of wildlife.

“The bottom line is [Murkowski] won’t be able to resist talking about drilling in the Arctic Refuge,” said Athan Manuel, who leads the Sierra Club’s advocacy for public lands. “Every member of Congress whose come to D.C. from Alaska has that as one of their goals.”

Manuel said that for Alaska lawmakers, the ANWR drilling issue comes down to providing enough oil so that the state can run its essential programs.

“The state is desperate for drilling in new areas. That’s why I think you’ll see her going after the Arctic eventually in her time as chairwoman, because the state of Alaska practically demands it,” he said.

“But I think she understands that if she does do that, it’s going to be a battle royale. This will unite the entire environmental community to fight back,” Manuel said, recalling the last fight in 2004 and 2005 as an “epic blowback.”

Green activists note that Obama opposes opening ANWR for oil, and expect that he would veto any legislation ordering exploration, just as President Clinton did in 1995.

The financial stakes in the ANWR fight are high, as the refuge likely has at least 5.7 billion barrels of oil, according to a 2000 report from the Energy Information Administration. The United States used 6.89 billion barrels of oil worth of petroleum products last year.

The federal government set aside nearly 20 million acres on Alaska’s north shore in 1960 as wilderness, and later asked the Interior Department to study whether it would be a good idea to lease a portion, known as the 1002 area, for oil drilling. Congress reserved the right to allow drilling.

While some Alaskans want the area to remain wild, the majority sees the government’s refusal to permit drilling as a federal overreach. Alaska has no income or sales tax, so oil fees account for the vast majority of the state’s revenue.

Bart Stupak, a former Democratic congressman from Michigan who has lobbied for ANWR drilling at Venable, said there’s little doubt that Murkowski will want to debate the issue as chairwoman.

“I think there will be increased pressure from Congress to open up ANWR,” said Stupak. Murkowski has “always been a great advocate for drilling up there, and she’s been good about the environmental aspects too.”

Beyond the pressure from Alaska, Stupak predicted that the debate would largely center on the need for oil, and the option to produce it domestically instead of importing it.

“ANWR’s a vast area with oil reserves. It’s an environmentally sensitive area. But it can work out,” he said.

Murkowski would enjoy support from several Republicans on her panel, including Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.). Portman said he’d support drilling in the refuge “if it can be done in an environmentally sound way, which I think it can, with a very small footprint,” while Scott said he’s open to the idea.

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), another long-time advocate of drilling in the refuge, is optimistic for Murkowski’s term as chairwoman.

“Sen. Murkowski’s role in setting energy policy, including the introduction of legislation to develop ANWR’s coastal plain, has always been supported by Congressman Young,” Matt Shuckerow, Young’s spokesman, said in a statement.

But Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who could be the top Democrat on the committee if Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) loses her December runoff, was one of the top opponents of ANWR drilling when President Bush made a major push for it in 2004 and 2005.

“I don’t support drilling in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge,” she said.

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), one of the newer members of the committee, would also stand opposed.

“You drill in a petroleum reserve, you don’t drill in wildlife refuges,” he said.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who will be the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, said he’s prepared to do battle with Murkowski over ANWR drilling.

“We’re going to be very aggressive publicly, in terms of taking [our] argument and our point out to the public,” he said.

Bentley Johnson, who oversees public lands issues for the National Wildlife Federation, predicted Murkowski will have other priorities in the Energy Committee, including oil and natural gas exports and reducing regulatory hurdles to energy production.

“There will be debates about the refuge, but I think she’ll try to focus on areas where there’s bipartisan agreement on energy issues first,” Johnson said.

“I wouldn’t see it as the first thing she’ll have on deck for that committee.”

–This report was updated at 5:30 p.m.

Tags Don Young Lisa Murkowski Maria Cantwell Martin Heinrich Mary Landrieu Rob Portman Tim Scott

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video