Time running out for opponents of Arctic drilling

Time running out for opponents of Arctic drilling
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Opponents of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) are running out of time and leverage. 

Negotiators in Congress this week said a compromise Republican tax-cut bill will include a provision allowing drilling in ANWR, which has rich oil reserves. 

With GOP leadership looking to get the tax bill to President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenators demand more details from Trump on intel watchdog firing Overnight Health Care: Trump steps up attack on WHO | Fauci says deaths could be lower than first projected | House panel warns federal stockpile of medical supplies depleted | Mnuchin, Schumer in talks over relief deal Trump says he'll look into small business loan program restricting casinos MORE's desk by Christmas, environmentalists are running out of time to rally foes of ANWR drilling — and the prospects for success appear bleak.

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Even those House Republicans skeptical of ANWR drilling are indicating that its inclusion in the tax bill won’t be a deal-breaker.

Asked if drilling opponents are racing the clock, Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Dybul interview; Boris Johnson update Lawmakers, labor leaders ramp up calls to use Defense Production Act Trump faces mounting pressure to unleash Defense Production Act MORE (D-Hawaii) replied, “Yes.”

“It’s an underrated aspect of this bill,” he said. “This has been a generations-long battle to preserve that refuge, and we’re going to find out the fate of it next week, so if anyone is not yet mobilized, now’s the time.” 

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiHouse Republicans threaten pushback on Saudi Arabia amid oil market slump Zoom, grocery delivery, self-isolation: How lawmakers are surviving coronavirus Lawmakers announce legislation to fund government purchases of oil MORE (R-Alaska) and the rest of her state’s congressional delegation have long pushed to allow for drilling in a corner of the 19-million-acre ANWR.

That effort was boosted earlier this year when Republican leadership made ANWR drilling a component of the tax-reform bill, the GOP’s top legislative priority.   

Murkowski confirmed this week that tax bill negotiators had agreed to include a provision in a final tax deal calling for lease sales in ANWR and a revenue sharing deal that would net the federal government a predicted $1 billion.

“This is new wealth from responsible development and the investment it brings,” she said Wednesday.

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Referring to the technical name of ANWR’s oil development region, Murkowski said, "It’s time to open up the 1,002 area, and it’s time to reform our broken tax code.”

Green groups have been urging activists to pepper Congress with complaints over the ANWR deal.

This week, a conservation group in Pennsylvania took out a newspaper ad calling on local Republicans to vote against any bill with refuge drilling included in it. Athan Manuel, the Sierra Club’s director of public lands protection, said his group is pushing supporters to call lawmakers and protest at local offices.

Groups have put cash behind the effort as well. The Wilderness Society has been running a $500,000 ad campaign against ANWR drilling in 15 House districts since last month. 

Environmentalists say their goal is to make the drilling issue politically potent.

“Our message is pretty consistent and clear: A vote for this bill is a vote to drill in the ANWR,” said Drew McConville, the Wilderness Society’s senior managing director for government relations. 

“I know there are other issues in this bill, but we fully expect that this is a big part of the calculation: You can’t be for preserving the refuge and vote of this bill,” McConville said.

But Democratic lawmakers and activists alike worry that message won’t be enough.

“I think that there’s a little bit of muscle fatigue in terms of being able to punch back,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said. 

“I hope, if anything, [given] the urgency and the distinct possibility it could happen now … we have time to gear up and make it consequential for members to vote for it.”

Rep. Jared HuffmanJared William HuffmanHouse Democrats call on Trump administration to lift restrictions on fetal tissue for coronavirus research Democrats call for stimulus to boost Social Security benefits by 0 a month Schiff: Remote voting would not compromise national security MORE (D-Calif.) said there is “so much distraction” surrounding the tax debate that it has obscured the Arctic drilling provisions within it.

“This is a hugely unpopular thing that they’re doing, tucked into a hugely unpopular tax bill that most people don’t understand,” he said.

Democrats had pinned their hopes on winning the support of moderate Republicans who have publicly opposed ANWR drilling, but those ranks are thinning. 

In the Senate, greens pushed for Sens. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainEsper faces tough questions on dismissal of aircraft carrier's commander Democratic super PAC targets McSally over coronavirus response GOP senator suspending campaign fundraising, donating paycheck amid coronavirus pandemic MORE (Ariz.) and Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSenators demand more details from Trump on intel watchdog firing Senators push for changes to small business aid President tightens grip on federal watchdogs MORE (Maine) to oppose drilling, but both supported a Senate-passed tax bill that included ANWR earlier this month. 

Over in the House, 12 Republicans signed a letter in November saying they oppose opening up ANWR and urging leadership to pull the provision from the final tax bill. 

Yet only six of those Republicans voted against the House’s original bill. Of the other six, at least three — Reps. Carlos CurbeloCarlos Luis CurbeloRepublicans can't exploit the left's climate extremism without a better idea Progressive Latino group launches first incumbent protection campaign The Memo: Bad polls for Trump shake GOP MORE (Fla.), Ryan CostelloRyan Anthony CostellloBottom line Former GOP Rep. Costello launches lobbying shop Head of Pennsylvania GOP resigns over alleged explicit texts MORE (Pa.) and Dave ReichertDavid (Dave) George ReichertBottom Line The most expensive congressional races of the last decade Lymphedema Treatment Act would provide a commonsense solution to a fixable problem MORE (Wash.) — did not commit to voting against a tax bill with ANWR included.

“I don’t think that there’s any one provision that would motivate me to deny tax relief for all of my constituents,” Curbelo said. Costello said ANWR wouldn’t make a tax bill “fatally defective” for him.

“This is a serious issue, and I’ve been making my feelings known on it and going for some consideration of its removal,” Reichert said.

Manuel acknowledged environmentalists’ arguments against drilling haven’t resonated with Republicans the way opponents had hoped.

He blamed both political pressure on Republicans to get a tax bill done this year and the way the debate over the legislation has focused on the tax provisions within it.

He said his group’s aim now is to try messaging against the bill as a whole.

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“We’re focusing on taking down the whole tax package. That’s been our message, but we’ve led with the Arctic,” he said.  

“We made a real good faith effort to pull it out on the floor of the Senate, and trying to get moderate Republicans to take it out. Now it’s all about taking down the bill,” Manuel said.

Supporters of the ANWR provision have dug in, insisting they’ll get the drilling plan — and the tax bill — to Trump this year.  

“Thank God I wore my cowboy boots today,” Rep. Don YoungDonald (Don) Edwin YoungCampaigns face attack ad dilemma amid coronavirus crisis Don Young dismissed 'beer virus,' told seniors to 'go forth with everyday activities' Pelosi stands firm amid calls to close Capitol MORE (R-Alaska) said at a tax bill hearing Wednesday, speaking to opponents of ANWR drilling.

“You know why cowboys wear cowboy boots? They keep their damn pants clean from the horse manure that comes from people that don’t know what the hell they’re talking about,” he said.