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Senate, House, and Trump all poised to rip open pristine Arctic landscape in hunt for oil

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Forces in Congress are moving to open the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, bypassing debate by including the controversial move in the upcoming appropriations bill.

Alaska’s coastal plain, 1.5 million acres of protected land known as Area 1002, is the primary breeding ground for a unique herd of 195,000 porcupine caribou — which are, in turn, a staple for the indigenous Gwitchin tribe, who say their way of life would be irreparably changed if oil and gas interests are able to open the area to development. 

The House had already taken steps towards including oil and gas revenue from the refuge in its proposed budget. On Friday the Senate released its own version of a 2018 appropriations bill, which asks the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee — chaired by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), a drilling supporter — to come up with $1 billion in new revenue. Murkowski and fellow Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, have both voiced support for using the budget process to open up the refuge.

“There is no doubt this is an invitation” to open the refuge, Lydia Weiss, government relations director for The Wilderness Society, said on a call with reporters this week. 

Still, the proposal is likely to face stiff opposition from environmentalists and conservationists. “Drilling there is not a particularly popular issue across America,” Weiss noted. She said a poll from January found that two-thirds of Americans do not want the refuge to be compromised by drilling.

It’s not clear that the rider would be able to get through the Senate. At least two Senate Republicans — John McCain (AZ) and Susan Collins (ME) — have opposed plans to open the refuge in the past. Democratic Sen. Ed Markey (MA) opposed the proposal immediately Friday.

“By releasing a budget today that sets the stage for attaching drilling in the Arctic Refuge to the Republican attempts to fast track a tax package, they have shown that they have learned none of the lessons of the Trumpcare failures,” he said in an emailed statement. “There is bipartisan opposition to drilling in our nation’s most pristine wildlife refuge and any effort to include it in the tax package would only further imperil the bill as a whole. I will fight vigorously on the Senate floor to remove this extraneous giveaway to Big Oil from the budget and protect this special place.”

Stand-alone bills to open the refuge have been introduced by the Alaska delegation for years, but they have never advanced, largely due to the overwhelming public opposition to drilling there. It has long been surmised that the only way for Congress to open the refuge would be to force it through the budget appropriations process.

“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge does not belong in the budget. It is wild, spectacular and belongs to all Americans, not oil companies,” Kristen Miller, interim executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement. “Drilling in this sacred land is divisive and controversial, and attaching this provision to must-pass legislation like tax reform would by-pass an essential debate, and could tank the whole process.”

Drilling for more oil and gas has been a top priority of the Trump administration. Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that the Interior Department has begun the process of opening Area 1002 for seismic testing, a disruptive method of testing for oil and gas below ground or under the ocean.

Also this month, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted to confirm Joe Balash, a former Alaskan official, as Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Land and Minerals Management. Throughout his career, Balash has contended that Area 1002 should be opened for drilling.

The proposal to open Area 1002 has also been criticized for its slipshod accounting. While the Trump administration suggested that royalties could bring in as much as $3.6 billion over the next decade, refuge experts point out that would require leasing all 1.5 million acres at a high market price.

“The [Congressional Budget Office] scoring of refuge alone doesn’t add up, but that’s not the point, Franz Matzner, deputy director of federal campaigns for the Natural Resources Defense Council, told ThinkProgress in July. “There are many different ways to raise revenue that would be more fiscally responsible and would be more in keeping with what the public wants on their land.”

Another issue that would have to be resolved is that, under current agreements, Alaska receives 90 percent of the oil and gas royalties from development in the state. The Trump budget anticipates a traditional 50-50 split. It was not immediately clear what Murkowski intends to propose.

Nor is it clear that there is sufficient demand for the refuge to justify opening it up — or to assume it would bring in the anticipated revenue. In July, an executive from ConocoPhillips, Alaska’s largest oil producer, told Congress that the company is focused on other areas of the state that are already open.

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