President Donald Trump signed tax reform legislation that also ends the battle over oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) that’s divided lawmakers for decades.
Trump not only signed tax cuts into law on Friday, he also delivered Alaska lawmakers, Republicans and conservative groups a major political win in a political battle that’s raged since the 1980s.
It’s been “an unnecessarily long and contentious battle,” Tom Pyle, president of the free market Institute for Energy Research, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “It’s a huge win for Alaskans. It’s a huge win for Americans.”
The Republican tax bill finally gives congressional authorization to open the 1.5 million acre 1002 area along Alaska’s Arctic coastline to drilling. The so-called coastal plain is just 8 percent of ANWR’s total area, but environmentalists and Democrats have fought tooth and nail to keep it off limits to drilling.
Pyle, who headed Trump’s Energy Department transition team, said the historic decision will finally allow companies to do modern assessments of ANWR’s oil and gas resources. The last survey was conducted in 1998, estimating ANWR held as much as 10 billion barrels of oil.
“We’ve come close a few times, but until now we never got over the finish line,” Pyle said.
Previously, Republicans had never gotten approval to open ANWR out of Congress. In 2005, Senate Republicans got ANWR language in the 2006 budget bill, but it was stripped out by House Democrats.
Alaska lawmakers from both parties have long pushed to ANWR’s coastal plain area for drilling. They’ve faced stiff resistance from environmental groups and most Democrats who worry drilling could harm caribou and exacerbate global warming.
Now, with majorities in both chambers, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski pushed through a reconciliation bill to raise $1 billion over 10 years through opening the 1002 area to oil and gas drilling.
A 2012 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report projected that opening the 1002 area to 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.
Environmentalists still plan on doing everything possible to keep oil and gas exploration out of ANWR, including suing the Interior Department to throw up hurdles to future lease sales in the area.
“Opening the door for oil companies to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will devastate Alaska’s wildlife and push us farther down the road of climate disaster,” Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.
“And doing it to fund tax cuts for billionaires is a sick joke,” Hartl said.
The League of Conservation Voters made a last-ditch attempt to rally support against the ANWR provision, arguing the “provision would do irreparable damage to one of America’s most magnificent and wildest landscapes.”
ANWR is the country’s largest wildlife refuge, spanning more than 19 million acres in northeastern Alaska. Few people live there and few ever travel to the region, which environmentalists say is a delicate ecosystem worthy of protection.
President Dwight Eisenhower first protected the area in 1960 at the urging of environmentalists, and the area became a wildlife refuge in 1980 under legislation signed by President Jimmy Carter. That 1980 law also set aside the 1002 area specifically for potential oil and gas development. It’s been a political battle ever since.
Oil and gas companies say they’d only need a 2,000-acre space in the 1002 area for drilling operations — that footprint could be even smaller due to technological advances.
Environmentalists argued for years caribou, polar bears and other animals could be harmed by drilling operations — despite decades of drilling in nearby Prudhoe Bay not degrading the environment.
“Now, ANWR opponents have adopted a new set of talking points, claiming that we shouldn’t drill in ANWR because the price of oil is too low,” Will Yeatman, a senior fellow at the free market Competitive Enterprise Institute, said in an emailed statement.
“This suggests that if the price was right, they would support drilling,” Yeatman said. “Out of the other side of their mouths, environmentalists claim that any drilling is unacceptable, because it would contribute to supposedly catastrophic climate change.”
“By stark contrast to the reasoning of ANWR opposition, drilling is supported overwhelmingly by citizens of the state – 78 percent in fact, as well as by the Governor, state legislature, and the entire congressional delegation,” Yeatman said.
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