Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, introduced legislation Wednesday night to open a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, with the expectation that energy development there will raise just over $1 billion over 10 years.
The introduction of the bill fulfills the terms of a budget passed by the GOP-controlled House and Senate that directed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which Murkowski leads, to create legislation to raise $1 billion over a decade to help pay for tax reform.
Murkowski said her committee will markup the legislation next Wednesday, Nov. 15.
“This legislation is a tremendous opportunity for both Alaska and our country,” Murkowski said. “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.”
Congressional Republicans have long pushed to allow energy exploration in a 1.5 million-acre section of the Alaskan refuge, known as the “1002 area,” where billions of barrels of oil lie beneath the coastal plain.
The 19.6-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was created under former President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1960. In 1980, Congress provided additional protections to the refuge but set aside the 1002 area for future drilling if lawmakers approved it.
Democrats have managed to block those efforts over fears that drilling would harm the ecosystem of what they describe as one of the wildest places left on Earth, inhabited by animals like polar bears, caribou, and arctic foxes.
The Republican-controlled Congress in 1995 passed a budget allowing refuge drilling, but the measure was vetoed by former President Bill Clinton.
This year, the path for Republicans to permit drilling is easier than ever, as the party is united toward the cause.
Murkowski’s legislation complies with the reconciliation instructions in the budget resolution, allowing Republicans to pass the bill with the support of a simple majority, rather than the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster.
The Trump administration is also supportive of the effort, as the Interior Department in September lifted restrictions on seismic studies to probe how much oil is under the refuge.
Former government officials and environmental groups have expressed doubt that drilling in the refuge can meet Republicans' expectations of raising $1 billion for the government over 10 years, with oil prices hovering around $50 a barrel and steep competition from natural gas in the nation's shale regions.
“This bill would give away Arctic Refuge oil to China and other countries hungry for exports,” said Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, in a statement Wednesday night. “It would allow roads, pipelines, gravel mines and well pads to be erected across the entire birthing grounds of the Coastal Plain, where caribou calve and where polar bear mothers den. Nothing in this bill can magically make these fantastical revenue assumptions materialize.”
Murkowski, in introducing the bill Wednesday, said the Congressional Budget Office estimates the legislation will raise $1.092 billion over the 10-year budget window. Between royalties and federal income taxes, she said, energy development would “raise substantially greater revenues.”
The legislation calls for the first lease sales for drilling in the refuge to occur within four years. It would split in half revenues raised from energy development between Alaska's state government and the federal government.
Alaskan politicians are especially eager to tap the refuge because oil production in the state has fallen from more than two million barrels per day in the late 1980s to under a half-million barrels per day — a big deal in a state whose government provides residents an annual check from oil revenue.