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'Drill, baby, drill' returns to the new Congress

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A truck drives on an ice bridge constructed near the Colville-Delta 5, or as it's more commonly known, CD5, drilling site on Alaska's North Slope. ConocoPhillips in October 2015 became the first to drill for oil in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, a region the size of Indiana. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

A long-standing Republican plan to drill for oil in Alaska's federal wildlife refuge is being resurrected in the Senate as President-elect Trump takes office, although its return may not bode well for energy legislation in the new Congress.

The drilling plan was one of two bills introduced during the first week of the 115th Congress that could be indicative of what to expect from Capitol Hill once Trump is sworn in as president. Both represent some of the more contentious policies from the Republican and Democratic sides.

A bill introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, seeks to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, or ANWR, to oil drilling, which has been a long-standing goal of Republican energy policy.

The last time the refuge was on the national radar was during the 2008 presidential campaign when Republican Sen. John McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, coined the slogan "Drill, Baby, Drill."

The second bill was endorsed by the top Democrat on the energy committee, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, and a number of other top Democrats. That bill, authored by the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, would ban offshore drilling on the West Coast. In many ways, it is the exact opposite of the Murkowski legislation.

"Sen. Cantwell has a lot of respect for Sen. Murkowski, and they have found many legislative areas where they can work together," said Cantwell's committee spokeswoman, Rosemarie Tully. "But when it comes to ANWR, neither one will change their position on this particular issue." Cantwell is adamantly opposed to opening up the Arctic refuge.

But a ban on offshore oil and natural gas drilling off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington doesn't have much of a chance to pass either, said Christopher Guith, senior vice president for policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy.

"All of a sudden you are moving into some pretty controversial areas," Guith said. "I just don't see approaching a majority in supporting a change in the law to ban offshore leasing in the Pacific," he said.

"There is way too much oil coming out of the offshore right now, and people don't appreciate that," Guith said. However, the Pacific offshore drilling area "is still pretty important" to America's long-term energy outlook and security. "It would have to be a huge trade-off" to pass, Guith said.

At the same time, opening the Alaska refuge for drilling would be a heavy lift to pass in any Congress, especially among Democrats who will adamantly oppose it even though the bill would open only a small fraction of the refuge's oil-rich lands.

"Absolutely — it's not something that would pass easily," said Peter Schaumberg, environment and natural resources principal for the law firm Beveridge and Diamond. But the oil and gas industry would undoubtedly like it to succeed, he said.

"Opening up ANWR has been of great interest for the oil and gas industry for a long time," he said. Lifting the restrictions on the federal Arctic refuge would give access to as much as an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil, constituting nearly two years of the nation's gasoline and diesel consumption.

Opening the Arctic refuge to oil production would not only save Alaska's economy, which has struggled under low oil prices, but it would make the U.S. more energy secure, especially as Russia, China and European countries are looking to exploit the Arctic for energy and other uses, experts say.

"I am sure there is industry interest in development," Schaumberg said. "I don't know if there is the same level of interest in the West Coast offshore as there would be in developing ANWR," he said.

If opening ANWR were passed, "it would provide a good opportunity for the industry, and I think there is a lot of interest in developing ANWR, which would also help the Trans-Alaska Pipeline to maintain its flow and other good purposes," he said.

"ANWR coastal plain holds the largest undeveloped conventional oil resources to be found the U.S. However, for the past several years the federal government has stood in the way of safe and responsible energy production in federal areas both offshore and onshore," said spokeswoman Brooke Sammon of the American Petroleum Institute, the largest trade group for the oil industry.

The timing is right for Murkowski and other Republicans to reinsert Alaska into the debate after nearly a decade of resistance from the Obama administration, Guith said. It is especially relevant after President Obama imposed an offshore drilling ban in the Arctic last month.

"They feel they have been under attack for the last eight years and I think you can easily justify that thought, or that feeling, based on the decisions that this administration has taken," he said.

Especially with Trump and his pro-fossil fuel agenda coming into office, now is the right time to discuss ANWR, even if its prospects are limited, say observers and lobbyists.

In some ways, the idea of opening the wildlife refuge helps to reinforce the more immediate effort on Capitol Hill, which is dismantling the regulations by the Obama administration that the GOP argues have placed limits on energy development.

"There's quite a bit of digging out to do that needs to happen, first and foremost," Guith said. "We'll see what the Senate's appetite is as far as floor time" once the deregulation effort is completed. The GOP is preparing to pass resolutions of disapproval that would repeal a number of the Obama administration's last-minute midnight regulations, but there is a time limit, Guith said.

After that, lawmakers will have to look at "resteering the ship" from a budget point of view, which would mean addressing the Energy Department's priorities and putting the focus back on clean coal research, he said. The budget isn't as "sexy" as drilling in the Arctic, but it will be competing for time and attention in Congress.

The energy committee is spending most of its time on getting Trump's Cabinet officials for the Interior and Energy departments through the confirmation process, said Nicole Daigle, spokeswoman for Murkowski. The first hearing is scheduled Tuesday for Trump's nominee to head Interior, Ryan Zinke.

"ANWR is a huge priority for Sen. Murkowski and Alaska," said Daigle, but the legislative agenda has not been developed for the new Congress. She said it would be "premature" to say anything at this point on the legislative strategy for the drilling bill or any other energy legislation.

Murkowski and Cantwell worked on a comprehensive energy bill last year and were in negotiations with the House when Republicans in the lower chamber pulled out, saying they would wait to get a better deal once Trump is in the White House. The House conferees' decision to pull out when they were so close to an agreement infuriated Murkowski.

Daigle said that for now all attention is on Trump's nominations and that the committee has no time frame for when it will begin discussing next steps for legislation.

"We are still trying to work through what things will look like in the 115th Congress," she said.

In the House, the situation is similar, said Natural Resources Committee spokeswoman Molly Block. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, the chairman of the committee, supports the move to open the Arctic refuge to drilling, she said. The last time the House took up drilling in the Arctic refuge was in a 2012 infrastructure bill, she said.

"In terms of a larger, comprehensive energy bill this Congress, there are a bunch of priorities for the first 100 days of the Trump administration from the Obamacare repeal to an infrastructure package," she said. "We may see things like changes to the permitting process and proposals from last year's energy bill in that broad package, but we won't know anything until we see a blueprint from the administration," she said.

"The chairman is supportive of efforts to open ANWR — as they are the wishes of the state of Alaska," Block said. "It's imperative that we listen to the states — something the current Obama administration failed to do over and over again."