Tax overhaul, ANWR heads to Trump’s desk

  • From left, the Alaska congressional delegation of Rep. Don Young, Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan are seen at a Jan. 26, 2015, news conference in Washington, D.C., to protest a move by the Obama administration to put the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge under wilderness management. Nearly three years later the trio are celebrating as President Donald Trump prepares to sign tax reform legislation with a provision to open the coastal plain to development. (Photo/Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

When President Donald Trump signs the federal tax overhaul into law the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will be open to the oil industry.

Most Alaskans are happy about it, some aren’t. In the Lower 48 the public seems more split on the issue, if not slightly against it.

After 37 years of debate, what more is there to say?

The members of Alaska’s congressional delegation, who got the last words on ANWR in Congress when the tax bill passed, wanted to add a little more in a Wednesday morning press briefing with Alaska reporters.

“This is a pretty historic day,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said, and in recognition of it being winter solstice, she added opening ANWR is an “opportunity for Alaskans that will bring many bright days for Alaska.”

Rep. Don Young, noting it’s the 14th time he’s shepherded ANWR legislation through the House, compared it to the day in 1973 when Vice President Spiro Agnew cast the tie-breaking vote in the split Senate to authorize construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. He also gushed about his colleagues in the delegation.

“The work these two senators put in is awesome,” Young said.

Sen. Dan Sullivan said the ANWR victory should provide a psychological boost to Alaskans struggling through a two-year recession.

In a broader sense, Sullivan also said the tax vote is proof that “elections have consequences,” as tax reform is something Republicans in Congress have been pushing for seemingly as long as the Alaska delegation has been stumping for ANWR.

Young said the delegation got commitments from House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell early in the year that opening the coastal plain would be a priority in Congress.

Murkowski said technological advancements allowing more oil to be extracted via a smaller footprint and the industry’s diligent environmental practices on state lands on the North Slope helped overcome old arguments about how oil activity would damage the fragile Arctic ecosystem.

“We heard the same tired rhetoric that we’re going to turn this into an industrial wasteland,” she said. “The way that we operate up there is second to none.”

The ANWR rider directs the Interior Department to hold two oil and gas lease sales of at least 400,000 acres each in the coastal plain within the next 10 years, but it authorizes total development of just 2,000 acres in the 1.5 million acre area, the delegation again stressed.

Sullivan went a step further, calling opposition arguments “dishonest” and saying, despite claims the oil industry spent millions of dollars supporting the effort, it was actually Outside environmental groups that spent money on the debate.

“This was a grassroots effort; it was the three of us and Alaskans that came to testify, that was it,” Sullivan said. “People were tired of the stale talking points by (Washington Democrat Senator) Maria Cantwell and others.”

Young went all the way, calling anyone who criticized the plan to drill for oil in the wildlife refuge “very stupid.”

Young has also said recently that current oil estimates in the refuge are probably close to 20 billion barrels of available oil. The most recent U.S. Geological Survey assessment of the oil and gas underneath the coastal plain, done in 1998, put the mean oil estimate at 7.6 billion barrels for the coastal plain-1002 area. The USGS additionally estimated there is a 5 percent probability the area holds nearly 12 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil, which says noting of the economics of extracting it.

With the political battle for ANWR all but over — at least until Democrats eventually regain control in Washington — now comes the legal fight.

Environmental groups will assuredly sue Interior at every turn to at least delay the lease sales.

The law mandates Interior hold the lease sales after going through a lengthy National Environmental Policy Act review. It’s unclear what happens if the conclusions of the environmental study don’t support development.

What appetite the industry will have for exploring in ANWR given the strong emotions it evokes from much of the public is also unknown.

That leads to questions about whether the 800,000-plus acres to be offered in lease sales can generate the $1 billion in federal revenue that’s expected — which is actually $2 billion because the State of Alaska gets half of all revenue from ANWR, per the legislation.

Murkowski acknowledged “it will likely be a decade-plus” before ANWR oil production starts, but said the state has waited 37 years and can wait a little longer.

“Now we at least have the opportunity we haven’t had,” she said.

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

Updated: 
12/20/2017 - 11:57am

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