Republicans set vote on drilling in Alaska refuge
Washington, 9 November (Argus) — A bill that would open up the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling will get its first vote next week as Republicans move ahead on an issue that has split senators for decades.
The US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee yesterday released the bill ahead of a vote on 15 November. The bill would repeal a ban on drilling in the refuge that has been in place since 1980. It would also order regulators to start oil and gas leasing in ANWR's "1002 area" on the coastal plain, which is estimated to hold 7.7bn bl of technically recoverable oil.
"This legislation is a tremendous opportunity for both Alaska and our country," the committee's chairman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said.
The debate over drilling in ANWR has stretched for years. Republicans attempted to open the refuge in 1991 but the measure failed in Congress. They tried again under former president Bill Clinton, who vetoed a bill that would allowed drilling in the refuge in 1995. Another attempt in 2005 was blocked by a filibuster in the Senate.
The US Interior Department would be required under the bill to hold at least two lease sales by 2021 and 2024 offering at least 400,000 acres in each sale. The revenue from those sales and a 16.67pc royalty on oil and gas production in ANWR would be split 50-50 between Alaska and the federal government.
The lease sales would raise $2.2bn over the next decade, according to the US Congressional Budget Office, which cautions the estimates are uncertain and depend on oil prices and other factors. Because of the long lead time to drill exploratory wells, complete production and build infrastructure, the budget office expects "no significant royalty payments" until after 2027.
The bill's backers say oil companies operating in the nearby Prudhoe Bay have shown they can safely and responsibly operate in the harsh arctic environment. Murkowski has presented her bill as a compromise because it would restrict the total surface area of production areas, airstrips and other facilities allowed in the refuge to 2,000 acres.
But Democrats oppose drilling in the refuge at all and say the surface area restrictions would still allow a large network of roads, pipelines and production facilities to fragment the refuge's 1.5mn-acre coastal plain. The refuge provides habitat to caribou, polar bear, birds and other wildlife and remains one of the last undeveloped parts of the US.
"There is no new science that says we do not have to worry about wildlife. And there is no new science that says oil development will take up a smaller footprint," the committee's ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) said last week.
Environmentalists are planning an aggressive campaign to block drilling in ANWR, through lawsuits, protests and targeted campaigns to pressure oil companies not to lease in the area. They are particularly worried President Donald Trump's administration would try to fast-track leasing in the refuge to make it harder to reverse drilling in the future.
"Once you put your flag in the sand it will be harder to dislodge," Sierra Club lands protection program director Athan Manuel said. "The Alaskans are so desperate for any new barrel, we are really worried they would really pull out the stops."
Republicans plan to speed up approval of the ANWR bill by using a legislative maneuver that would prevent a filibuster in the Senate. That means Democrats will have limited ability to slow down the bill, setting up the possibility for a suddenly quick end to a long policy debate.