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Senate opens a path to drill the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

However, several more steps would have to happen for drilling to be authorized.


On Oct. 19, Republicans made significant headway to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Senate passed a budget resolution whose primary purpose was to overhaul the tax code. But it could also open the door to drilling in the nation’s largest refuge. The resolution included instructions to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to raise $1 billion in revenue. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who chairs the committee, said extracting oil in the refuge is not the only option her committee will consider. “But I will tell you that it is the best option, and it is on the table.”

The vote was important progress in Republicans’ long-thwarted effort to drill in the refuge. It required only 51 votes to pass, thanks to Republican leaders who crafted an amendment making that possible. Normally, it takes 60 votes for most legislation to pass the Senate because of the threat of filibuster.

Democratic senators including Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, and Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, tried to strip the refuge drilling language from the budget resolution, but their amendment failed, 52 to 48. One Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, joined all but one Democrat to oppose the measure. “You’re willing to (degrade) the environment as a way to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy,” Cantwell said in a speech on the Senate floor.

Murkowski said the legislation her committee drafts, likely to open the refuge to drilling, will increase domestic energy production, which would stimulate the creation of new wealth and jobs.

While the vote was a major success for Republicans, who have sought to open the refuge to energy exploration for decades, several more steps would have to happen for drilling to actually be authorized. Opponents vowed to intensify their resistance. “The Gwich’in Nation, along with our allies, will continue to fight until the Arctic Refuge is taken out of the budget bill, as we have done for decades,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, in a statement.

The House included a similar direction in its version of the budget resolution. The Senate and House resolutions differ somewhat; the House will probably pass the Senate version, observers say. Failing that, the two chambers would hammer out the differences between their resolutions and then vote on whatever consensus version emerged.

Then the Senate Energy and House Natural Resources Committees would draft legislation on how they intended to raise revenues, likely by drilling in the refuge and possibly allowing offshore drilling as well. Those measures would be lumped with the tax package in the final budget reconciliation bill, voted on by both chambers and then, if approved, sent to the president for his signature. Again, only 51 votes will be needed in the Senate to pass the bill.

Caribou graze on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop.

A similar attempt to open ANWR was made in 2005, also during budget reconciliation. That time, an amendment to strip the drilling language from the Senate version of the budget resolution, also authored by Cantwell, failed even more narrowly, 51-49. Moderate House Republicans pressured their leadership to drop it from the budget reconciliation package. “Fortunately, all previous attempts to destroy this pristine Arctic ecosystem have failed and we will keep fighting until this attempt fails too,” Cantwell said in a statement.

Conservation groups have long fought to preserve the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a vast wilderness in northeastern Alaska that’s home to caribou, polar bears, grizzly bears, muskoxen and many other species. Ana Unruh Cohen, director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the fate of the refuge is in the people’s hands: “It’s crucial that the American public raise their voice and let their lawmakers know that they want to continue to protect the Arctic Refuge from oil drilling.”

 Note: This article has been updated with additional information.

Correspondent Elizabeth Shogren writes High Country News’ DC Dispatches from Washington.