Legislation introduced by Senator Lisa Murkowski (R.-Alaska) earlier this month would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, with a minimum of two lease sales to happen in the next seven years. The legislation passed out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee (of which Murkowski is chairman) last week.
Murkowski estimates that the sales would bring in just over $1 billion in the next ten years, which would help fulfill the requirement laid out in a provision in the Senate’s budget—that the government bring in $1 billion in drilling lease sales in the next decade—that added pressure to lawmakers to finally open the protected area to drilling. Half of the revenue from the proposed leases would go to the state of Alaska, with the other half going to the federal government.
This legislation comes off the heels of an order signed in May by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to “jump start” Alaskan energy development. It requires just 51 votes to pass in the Senate, rather than the traditional 60, because it’s tied to the budget process Republicans are using to push through tax reform.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a hotly contested tract of public land in the far northern reaches of Alaska. A 1.5 million acre portion of the nearly 20-million acre refuge was set aside in 1980 for further review; the 1002 area, or the coastal plain, had caught the eye of oil and gas companies interested in mining the area. It quickly became a touchstone issue for both sides of the debate—conservationists who consider the area one of the last pristine wildernesses and consider drilling too great a risk, and oil and gas advocates who believe the project could be undertaken with minimum impact to the surrounding area, and who believe any environmental impact would be outweighed by the economic benefit for the state of Alaska and the United States oil market.
It’s an issue of native land rights as well—the 1002 area encompasses the Inupiat town of Kaktovik, the only town within the ANWR, and the town nearest the ANWR (which is surrounded on three sides by the refuge) is home to the Gwich’in people. Both tribes have officially stated their opposition to oil and gas development in the area, as they depend on the populations of caribou, polar bear, whales, and other arctic species for sustenance and livelihood. Environmental interests fear the development would negatively impact these animals, particularly the caribou, for whom the coastal plain is a calving ground.
“This legislation is a tremendous opportunity for both Alaska and our country,” Murkowski said in a statement. “The legislation I released tonight will put us on a path toward greater prosperity by creating jobs, keeping energy affordable for families and businesses, generating new wealth, and strengthening our security—while reducing the federal deficit not just by $1 billion over ten years, but tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars over the decades to come.”
Estimates regarding the size and quality of the oil resource, and the amount of money it could bring to the US economy, are hotly contested. The initial reports from the 80s and 90s, when the controversy was first beginning to brew, have been proved unreliable. A 2008 US Department of Energy report cited “considerable uncertainty regarding both the size and quality of the oil resource that exist in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Thus, the potential ultimate oil recovery and potential yearly production are highly uncertain.”
Photo from the US Fish and Wildlife Service
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