Senate Panel Approves Expansion of Oil and Gas Drilling in Alaska Refuge

WASHINGTON (CN) – A Senate committee on Wednesday gave its blessing to a controversial plan to expand oil and gas drilling in a part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Tensions were high during the meeting of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources at which the bill was approved, with bill sponsor Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., debating the necessity of drilling in a 1.5-million acre swath of the 20-million acre wildlife refuge.

Murkowski promised the bill would rake in $2 billion in royalties over the next decade, with half of the funding going directly to her state. Drilling is a job creator for indigenous Alaskan populations, she said. Murkowski also told the committee drilling “will not sacrifice polar bear, caribou or migratory birds for the sake of development.”

“But we also realize this is not a choice we face here,” Murkowski said, adding she would never have supported the legislation if she felt it would be detrimental to the environment.

Cantwell blasted the bill and Murkowski’s estimation of its environmental impact.

“This is not a serious budget proposal, it’s a cynical effort to open up the heart of the Arctic Refuge for oil. I’m sure at the heart of it is the interest of Alaskans … [but the bill today] removes statutory prohibition on oil and gas development and reminds me of the debate which happened when we wanted to establish the Grand Canyon,” she said. “Thank God there was stewardship to preserve it.”

Cantwell also criticized Murkowski’s rushing of the marked-up bill to Wednesday vote, saying consideration by fellow committee members was omitted.

“That is the new regular order in the U.S. Senate. Republicans charge in here and instead of working in a bipartisan regular order, they’ve determined the only way you can get legislation through is by having hearings without the legislation, hiding the information from the general public, throwing it out if you need to and then when you realize your own colleagues don’t want it, changing it overnight and then trying to rush it through at a breakneck pace,” she lamented.

The legislation is controversial among more than just environmentalists concerned with impact to Alaska’s North Slope, where the refuge is located.

The bill is also directly tied to the GOP tax reform package, meaning  if the tax bill goes through, so does drilling in the refuge.

Cantwell called last minute marks up to legislation before Wednesday’s meeting,  “sleight of hand” which changed the core purpose of the refuge  to preserve wildlife and their habitat – and changed what organization was responsible for managing the land there.

Under Murkowski’s revisions, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is largely excluded from managing the land there and instead, that responsibility will be divided between the FWS and the Bureau of Land Management, run by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

“The chairman’s mark specifically says the [Bureau of Land Management] is to manage the refuge in accordance with the National Petroleum Reserve Production Act, which has a very different standard for management than what you find in the National Wildlife Refuge Administration Act,” Cantwell said.

Under the refuge administration act, development can’t occur unless it does not interfere or detract from the purpose of the refuge itself.

“The Arctic Natural Wildlife Refuge was established to protect wildlife. Yet in this case, under the production act, exploration could proceed,” Cantwell said.

More than 50 amendments to the legislation were up for consideration, some aimed at weakening its impact, but the committee only considered 15 and eventually rejected all of them.

In a statement last week, American Petroleum Institute director Erik Milito defended drilling in the refuge and commended Murkowski for her leadership in “harnessing [the] nation’s energy potential to benefit American consumers.”

“Studies have shown the ANWR coastal plain holds the largest undeveloped conventional oil resources to be found in the U.S., and projections show that increased production over the long-term is exactly what we need to meet domestic and global demand. With eighty percent of U.S. voters supporting increased domestic oil and natural gas production, we should embrace our nation’s abundant energy resources and continue advancing the U.S. as a global energy leader,” Milito said.

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