Everything you need to know about the coming Trump Arctic drilling debate

Everything you need to know about the coming Trump Arctic drilling debate
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The Senate's budget vote on Thursday was the opening salvo in what's likely to be a bitter fight over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

President Trump, key officials in his administration and leading Republicans support drilling in the ANWR, an expanse of 19 million acres of land — about the size of South Carolina — above the Arctic Circle in Alaska, 1.5 million of which was set aside for potential oil exploration and development.

But greens uniformly oppose any effort to produce oil in the refuge, which they consider a pristine frontier of American landscape.


Here's what to know about ANWR and how this debate will play out.

What’s at stake?  

President Eisenhower established the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska in 1960. When Congress expanded it 20 years later, lawmakers specifically carved out a 1.5 million-acre region on Alaska’s North Slope for potential future oil development.

The refuge is an untouched region of Alaskan wilderness, supporting the habitat of caribou, wolves, polar bears and hundreds of species of migratory birds. The Porcupine caribou herd, which migrates across the refuge, is sacred to the Gwich’in Indian Nation, who live in the region.

“Americans know that this is one of the last wild corners left,” said Andy Moderow, the state director of the Alaska Wilderness League.

“We are talking about whether we want to draw the line and keep it for future generations, or we want to let it look like the rest of the slope,” where energy development is permitted.

Oil firms have eyed ANWR for years, though efforts to lease in the region have fizzled. But local developers say drilling in ANWR now could lead to new jobs and revenue for a state reliant on the energy sector and whose bottom line has been decimated by a downturn in oil prices.

“We have infrastructure close by and the industry in Alaska does it right, so it’s seen as a very manageable, and minimal impact, approach to development,” said Wyche Ford, the president of the Alaska Support Industry Alliance.

Ford said the industry could work under regulations to protect the environment there.

But, “I don’t know how to deal with people whose opinion is, ‘no development, no way, no how,’” he said. “That’s just a different problem.”

The Senate takes up the fight

The Senate’s budget resolution, passed on a 51-49 vote on Thursday, directs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to raise $1 billion in revenue or savings for the federal government over the next decade.

The budget doesn’t formally say that should come from drilling in ANWR, but that’s considered the easiest way to raise that revenue.

The committee is chaired by a proponent of ANWR drilling, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiGraham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate Sarah Palin says she's praying about running for Senate against Murkowski Graham says he has COVID-19 'breakthrough' infection MORE, who led the charge against an anti-drilling amendment on the Senate floor Thursday.

She indicated this week that drilling in ANWR will be a central piece of any committee effort to reach its revenue goal.

“When ANWR was established, it was recognized that there were areas that were appropriate for wilderness, and there were areas that were appropriate to be reviewed and considered for their exploration and production potential,” she said on Thursday.

“Opening the non-wilderness … area to development is an option to meet the instructions to the energy committee. But it is not the only option. But I will tell you, it is the best option, and it is on the table.”

The complicated political path forward

The Senate’s budget is far from the last word on potential drilling in ANWR.

The energy provision is included in a budget bill that requires support from both the House and the Senate. Republicans intend to use the budget process to tackle not only ANWR drilling but also tax reform, a politically-fraught push that could derail the entire effort.

But, setting aside the tax debate, ANWR supporters say that they’ll pressure lawmakers to take the drilling option off the table entirely.

They hope to replicate their success from 2005, when congressional opposition led Republican leadership to remove ANWR drilling proposals from a budget resolution.

Organizers sent an opening salvo in that fight this week, delivering to senators a letter signed by more than 300 businesses and groups outlining their opposition to ANWR drilling.

In Congress, Democrats presented their arguments against drilling this week, noting a surge in American oil production elsewhere around the country.

“The notion that we, tonight, after 60-plus years, would give up what is a biologically important area, a critical habitat for polar bears, a breeding ground for caribou, migratory birds and over 200 species — for what? For oil we don’t need?” Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - White House, Dems play blame game over evictions Graham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate Top Democrat: 'A lot of spin' coming from White House on infrastructure MORE (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said Thursday.

Republicans have so far rejected efforts to take drilling off the table, making an economic argument they say justifies exploring ANWR for oil.

“More energy production means more American jobs, more American economic growth, more American national security, more American energy security,” Sen. Dan SullivanDaniel Scott SullivanGraham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate Senate confirms Biden pick for No. 2 role at Interior Concerns grow over China's Taiwan plans MORE (R-Alaska) said.

“And decreased federal budgets and trade deficit and a more sustainable global environment. Because no one in the world produces energy more responsibly than Americans, especially Alaskans.”

If Congress manages to pass a drilling plan, it would still take years for the federal government to update its regulations and allow drilling in the region.

Peter Van Tuyn, an environmental lawyer in Anchorage, said greens would watch that process closely and determine whether they could stop the effort through the courts.

“There is a road ahead, and there are many forks in it that the opponents of drilling are going to stay all in on, trying to prevent this authorization in the first place,” he said. “But there are still forks in the road after that.”

Trump administration laying groundwork for ANWR drilling

The Trump administration has explicitly endorsed drilling in ANWR, producing a budget document projecting that it could raise up to $1.8 billion in new revenue by 2018.

Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Biden launches blitz for jobs plan with 'thank you, Georgia' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Court sets in motion EPA ban on pesticide linked to developmental issues | Trump Interior Secretary Zinke files to run for Congress, again | Senate passes bipartisan B water infrastructure bill MORE in May signed an order requiring the department to update its assessment of recoverable oil in ANWR. In August, the agency began drafting a rule allowing for exploratory drilling in the region, the Washington Post reported last month.

The Interior Department did not respond to a request for comment Friday on its efforts.

Opponents say the White House’s budget projection is exaggerated. But ANWR drilling supporters and opponents alike say the Trump administration has changed the discussion over the issue.

“The election changed so much for public lands and water across the country,” Moderow said.

“We’ve had warning they would been coming, and we’ve been mobilizing and doing what we can. We can’t lose this one. It’s different.”