WASHINGTON — Ignoring the pleas of scientists, environmentalists and a bipartisan group of former Interior Department officials, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources advanced legislation on Wednesday that would open up part of Alaska to oil and gas development.
The move would come with unclear economic benefits, and opponents warn it could destroy Alaska’s pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The proposal would “turn [the refuge] into a petroleum reserve,” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the committee’s ranking member, said Wednesday during a hearing.
The bill, which committee chair Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced last week, would require that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke approve at least two lease sales for drilling — each no less than 400,000 acres — in the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain area of ANWR. This region in northeast Alaska, also known as the 1002 Area, has been the subject of a decades-long battle, with many failed attempts to allow for energy development.
In her opening statement, Murkowski swung back at claims that introducing the bill as part of Congress’ 2018 budget plan circumvented the normal legislative process. Because the plan is being considered under special “reconciliation” provisions, the bill requires a simple 51-vote majority to pass in the Senate.
Murkowski also said she’s “confident” drilling would not come at the expense of the environment.
“We have been working on this for some 40 years now,” Murkowsi said, referring to the push to allow for development. “For many of us, we believe that this area — this very productive area — is actually one of the best places that we can go for responsible development, and that we should have done it some time ago.”
The refuge, which covers more than 19 million acres, is home to polar bears, moose and hundreds of species of migratory birds, and serves as the calving ground for Porcupine caribou.
The full committee advanced the bill by a 13-10 vote, largely along party lines.
Democrats introduced a slew of amendments, many of which sought to protect the area and the species that live there. One proposed by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), for example, would have prevented oil and gas companies with histories of pollution and environmental damage from obtaining leases.
The Republican majority voted down all the Democrats’ amendments.
When Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980, it expanded the ANWR but opted not to give wilderness status to the 1002 Area, which was set aside for potential oil and gas development. Only Congress can grant leases for that purpose.
The Senate budget plan includes a provision that requires Murkowski’s committee to find $1 billion in additional revenue over the next decade to help pay for tax reform. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the legislation would generate slightly more than $1 billion in federal revenue over the next decade — a figure that has been widely disputed.
“Subjecting America’s last pure wildland ― its caribou and musk oxen, the coastal plain, and the Gwich’in way of life ― to the destruction of seismic testing and oil extraction is the very opposite of providing shelter and protection.”
The bill would allow for 2,000 acres of the coastal plain to be developed with wells and support facilities.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said future generations will look back on hearings like Wednesday’s and wonder “what world was the United States Senate living in” because it was pushing for more fossil fuel development “at a time of devastating damage done by climate change.” He pointed to the destruction caused by recent hurricanes along the Gulf Coast and in the Caribbean.
“You’re talking about raising a billion dollars here,” Sanders said. “I’m talking about the United States government spending hundreds of billions of dollars repairing damage, which, to a significant degree, not totally, had to do with climate change. And the scientists tell us the worst is yet to come.”
Environmental groups were quick to blast the committee’s vote.
Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director of the League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement that Murkowski’s bill is “nothing more than a long-sought payout for Big Oil” and a proposal “built on phony revenue numbers, questionable demand and dangerous environmental waivers.”
Ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, Niel Lawrence, Alaska director for the Land and Wildlife Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, noted that the definition of “refuge” is “a place that provides shelter or protection.”
“Subjecting America’s last pure wildland ― its caribou and musk oxen, the coastal plain, and the Gwich’in way of life ― to the destruction of seismic testing and oil extraction is the very opposite of providing shelter and protection,” he said.
The Gwich’in people rely on the caribou herd as a food source. Samuel Alexander, a tribal representative, said at a hearing earlier this month that his people view drilling in the 1002 Area as an attack on their freedom and way of life.
This article has been updated with additional comments from the hearing and with reactions from environmentalists.