ANWR authorization through budget would avoid filibuster

  • As Rep. Don Young, Gov. Bill Walker and others celebrate, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signs an order on May 31 at the annual Alaska Oil & Gas Association conference calling for a reexamination of the development plan for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and a fresh evaluation of the potential oil resource on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo/Courtesy/U.S. Department Of The Interior)

Republicans in Congress are angling to use the budget process as a means to opening part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development.

The House of Representatives passed House Concurrent Resolution 71 on Oct. 5, which authorizes spending for the 2018 fiscal year and provides general recommendations on spending priorities through 2027. It includes language instructing the House Natural Resources Committee to find ways to generate at least $5 billion in new revenue over the next 10 years as a way to cut the annual deficit.

The 464-page budget report also instructs Congress to focus on energy production from federal lands.

“Unlocking domestic energy supplies in a safe, environmentally responsible manner will increase receipts from bonus bids, rental payments, royalties, and fees,” the budget report states. “The budget allows for greater access in areas such as Alaska, the Outer Continental Shelf, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Intermountain West.”

The Senate Budget Committee had its own instructions for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, to find ways to generate $1 billion for the Treasury in its 2018 budget resolution released Sept. 29.

Murkowski said she was happy to see the directive.

“This provides an excellent opportunity for our committee to raise $1 billion in federal revenues while creating jobs and strengthening our nation’s long-term energy security,” Murkowski said at the time.

Rep. Don Young said a day prior to the House vote that he’s committed to working with the Senate through budget reconciliation to open ANWR to industry.

“There is the ability to include language in (budget) reconciliation that would pave the way to open ANWR — the 1002 — for development,” Young’s spokesman Matt Shuckerow said.

The ANWR coastal plain is regularly called the “1002 area”, a reference to the section of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, that describes it. ANILCA established many of the designated federal areas in Alaska, including ANWR.

Section 1002 of the exhaustive legislation called for the initial wildlife and hydrocarbon resource assessments and outlines the subsequent steps for oil and gas exploration and development if Congress were to approve it.

Using the federal budget as a vehicle to authorize drilling in the refuge would allow Republicans to avoid the 60-vote, filibuster-proof threshold needed to pass most bills in the Senate because any measure deemed to reduce the deficit only need simple majority support from each body. The lease and royalty revenue ANWR activity would go towards closing the deficit and therefore standalone ANWR legislation is not needed, Shuckerow said.

“Though imperfect, this budget is an important step to unlocking our nation’s tremendous energy resources within ANWR, reforming frivolous regulations that hinder job creation and growth, and tackling the first major tax reform in over three decades,” Young said in a release from his office.

It’s an avenue similar to that Republicans tried to use to repeal the Affordable Care Act earlier this year but failed because there was not enough support within the party on the Senate side to reach 50 votes for multiple reasons.

Young often mentions he has shepherded ANWR-opening legislation through the House 12 times during his tenure, but each time it has died often in the Senate and once via a veto from President Bill Clinton in 1996.

In this case Republicans are trying to replicate what the House did while George W. Bush was president in 2005, when it included opening the ANWR coastal plain to industry activity in the fiscal year 2006 budget, according to Shuckerow. However, it stalled in the Senate and was not included in the final budget bill.

Whether there will be enough votes in the Senate to pass a budget bill with ANWR language is still unclear, however. With 52 Republicans in the Senate the margin for dissent is small and Republicans Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Susan Collins of Maine have previously broke from the party on the issue and opposed opening the refuge to industry. If they continue to hold that stance there would be no room for other Republicans to break from the party’s traditional stance with Vice President Mike Pence needed to break a tie if necessary.

Recent iterations of ANWR-opening legislation introduced in both the House and Senate by the Alaska congressional delegation have limited the overall development footprint inside the refuge’s coastal plain to 2,000 acres. The ANWR coastal plain is about 1.5 million acres of the total 19.2 million-acre refuge.

On May 31 in Anchorage, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke ordered the U.S. Geological Survey to update its oil and gas resource assessment for the refuge, a process that is still ongoing. The last assessment was done in 1998 using seismic data from the 1980s; it concluded the mean estimate for recoverable oil in the coastal plan to be 7.6 billion barrels, with another 3.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas likely in place.

During the winter of 1985-86 Chevron and BP partnered to drill the KIC-1 exploration well on ANWR in-holdings owned by Kaktovik Inupiat Corp. and Arctic Slope Regional Corp. It is the only well drilled in ANWR and what was found remains one of Alaska’s best-kept secrets.

National and state-focused conservation groups have long opposed drilling in ANWR, contending it is the most pristine refuge left in the country and the industry activity could drastically damage the Porcupine caribou herd that migrates through the refuge and is relied upon by Alaska Natives and Canadian First Nation Tribes.

Pro-development Alaskans counter by noting many North Slope residents support opening ANWR. Arctic Slope Regional Corp., the area’s Native regional corporation has long pushed for drilling the coastal plain.

Developing the contentious area is a priority for Voices of the Arctic Inupiat, a nonprofit formed in 2015 that includes 20 North Slope villages and Native corporations as its members.

But leaders of the Gwich’in tribe in the Upper Yukon region of Alaska and Canada argue that using the general position of North Slope residents to show all Alaska Natives support opening ANWR is ignoring the people who actually depend on the Porcupine caribou and in-turn the refuge.

Gwich’in Steering Committee Executive Director Bernadette Demientieff said in an interview that her group — formed in 1988 to oppose development in ANWR — is going to make itself heard.

“Enough is enough. We don’t want more drilling,” Demientieff said. “The people who want more drilling hear what they want to hear.”

The Native regional and village corporations that support development have a profit motive and do not speak for the people of the region, she contends.

The Gwich’in people rely on the Porcupine caribou for up to 80 percent of their diet, she said, and by extension are “a part of the caribou herd.”

Climate change has already pushed the herd’s migratory route through the refuge farther north and potentially into the area that could be developed, according to Demientieff, while other North Slope caribou populations have generally declined of late.

“You can’t tell us that our food security is going to be protected when this is happening,” she said. “It’s just really frustrating that we have to be fighting for our way of life like this.”

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Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

Updated: 
10/19/2017 - 1:22pm

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