House Approves Ban on Oil Drilling in Arctic Refuge

This Jan. 7, 2013, photo shows the floating drill rig Kulluk in Kodiak Island, Alaska’s Kiliuda Bay, as salvage teams conduct an in-depth assessment of its seaworthiness. (James Brooks/Kodiak Daily Mirror via AP, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Over protests from Republicans that repealing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would irreversibly damage U.S. energy independence, House Democrats passed a bill Thursday to protect the pristine coastal plains from oil and gas developers.

The measure was passed in the House by a 225-193 vote, but is unlikely to be taken up in the Republican-controlled Senate.

H.R. 1146, sponsored by Representative Jared Huffman, D-Calif., and 182 other lawmakers, repeals leasing in a section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge known as Area 1002, a 1.5-million acre plain that hosts hordes of wildlife like porcupine caribou, polar bears, migratory birds and over 200 other species.

It is also a sacred place for the native Alaskan Gwich’in Tribe whose food, cultural and spiritual needs rely on an unobstructed path for porcupine caribou to migrate to their community situated a few hundred miles away from the refuge.

The roads and infrastructure required to drill for oil would wildly disrupt the ancient migratory path. While Huffman’s bill received the Gwich’in Tribe’s full-throated support, another native tribe, the Inupiat, has taken a different tack. They support drilling because the tribe’s experience with revenue from Prudhoe Bay has been lucrative and provided several meaningful opportunities for economic uplift.

The debate between tribes has raged for years and the larger battle in Congress has persisted for least 35 years. But when President Donald Trump’s tax bill was passed in 2017, a provision to open the refuge was wedged in without a hearing or a vote, reigniting long simmering tensions between environmentalists and energy industrialists who differ sharply on what to do with a refuge that sits in one of the fastest warming parts of the world.

The provision was hailed by Republicans as a way to partially offset the tax bill’s steep price tag. They argued that drilling the refuge, abbreviated as ANWR, would rake in $1 billion. But according to the Congressional Budget Office, the tax bill’s deficit totals $1.4 trillion, so the benefit may not be as great as initially speculated.

Further enflaming debate is the critical question of whether recoverable crude actually exists in the area.  A 2018 analysis by the U.S. Energy Information Administration concedes that any projection around production in the refuge is “uncertain.” The only well constructed there was completed in 1986 and the results have remained largely confidential.

An expose by the New York Times in April also featured an interview with an attorney who represented big oil shareholders gunning for development of ANWR in the 1980s. The attorney claimed discovery of the wells decades ago revealed the refuge contained little to no oil.

This hasn’t deterred Republicans like Alaska Representative Don Young, who blasted Democrats during the floor debate Thursday and the bill’s lead sponsor, Huffman of California, in particular.

“This bill is a sham… This is about the state of Alaska, not the state of big oil. California’s got enough problems. They should read the papers,” Young said. “This won’t go anywhere. I see the death of this bill a long time before the gentleman is ever in the House again.”

Young and other Republican lawmakers like Kevin Hern of Oklahoma and Doug Lamborn of Colorado extolled drilling in the Arctic, citing it as a vital means of promoting American energy independence.

But Democrats like Alan Lowenthal of California repeatedly poked holes in that assertion.

“This is absolute nonsense. Republicans don’t care about this and they haven’t for years, ever since they voted to lift the oil export ban. If energy independence was the goal, we wouldn’t be letting companies send U.S. produced oil all over the world, particularly when we’re still importing from other countries but that is exactly what happens today,” Lowenthal said.

About 3 million barrels of oil are exported from the U.S. each day while 7 million are imported.

“Instead of exporting those 3 million barrels, we keep them here at home. So if Republicans want to put the export ban back in place, we can have a real discussion. But they know their friends in the oil and gas industry would never let them have that discussion,” Lowenthal said.

Huffman also chastised Republican lawmakers for their rosy view of Arctic revenue.

“When we talk about development on the coastal plain, there should be no confusion that the oil there won’t go to American consumption. It won’t. It will find top dollar on the global oil export market,” he said.

As often as H.R. 1146 was derided by Republicans as the latest empty gesture from Democrats to appease environmentalists, Democrats were equally adamant.

The bill adds a layer of protection for a rapidly changing climate and as an added benefit, Huffman explained, it also prevents would-be speculators like Joe Balash from potentially cashing in.

Balash, the former Interior Department assistant secretary for land and minerals management, resigned from the agency in August. He waited just three days before starting his new job at Oil Search, a Papua New Guinea-based company exploring oil development in the Arctic.

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