Republicans are the closest they’ve come to allowing oil and gas exploration in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) since the Bush administration.
The GOP may score a victory in the decades-old war to open up ANWR to drilling, but the battle is not over yet. The Senate voted down an attempt by Democrats to strip language giving a green light to drilling in ANWR from the latest budget proposal Thursday. The budget bill is seen as the first step towards tax reform.
“This budget resolution offers a tremendous opportunity to secure the future of Alaska, from long overdue federal tax reform to responsible energy development in a small part of the non-wilderness 1002 Area,” Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a statement.
“Tonight was just the first step, but we are now on a path that will allow us to create jobs, generate new wealth, keep energy affordable, and protect our national security,” Murkowski said Thursday night after the vote.
The budget bill contained a reconciliation instruction for the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which Murkowski chairs, to come up with legislation to raise $1 billion over the next decade. That bill can pass the Senate with a simple majority as part of the reconciliation process.
A 2012 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report projected that opening ANWR to oil and gas drilling would generate $5 billion in revenue over 10 years. Oil prices have come down since then, so in reality revenues may not end up being that high.
Congress has furiously debated over opening the refuge up to drilling since the late 1970s, when the U.S. was in the midst of an energy crisis. Since then, Republicans have generally called for opening up more of Alaska to oil and gas exploration to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign imports.
Environmentalists have long opposed opening ANWR. Democrats have generally supported keeping ANWR closed off, on the grounds that it’s a sensitive ecosystem that could be damaged by oil exploration, even though drilling would take part in a small part of the refuge.
ANWR is estimated to contain 8 billion barrels in the 1.5 million acre area that Congress set aside for potential oil and gas exploitation, according to the Department of the Interior. The so-called 1002 area is about 8 percent of ANWR’s total area, which is more than 19.2 million acres.
The last time Senate Republicans came close to opening up ANWR was in 2005 when they got a drilling bill as part of the 2006 budget bill. Their effort failed, however, after the drilling language was taken out of the budget bill amid opposition from House Democrats.
Democrats also attempted to block the latest ANWR effort, with Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell leading a group in pushing an amendment to strip pro-ANWR language out of the Senate budget blueprint.
“The notion that we, tonight, after 60-plus years, would give up what is a biologically important area, a critical habitat for polar bears, a breeding ground for caribou, migratory birds and over 200 species — for what? For oil we don’t need?” Cantwell said in a Senate floor speech Thursday.
Cantwell’s bill was voted down 52-48, though Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins supported the bill. West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin voted against his own party to support Alaska drilling.
The Senate budget bill now goes back to the House for a vote, where it’s expected to pass.
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