With Republicans set to achieve a decades-long policy goal of opening a section of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, environmentalists over the weekend launched a last-ditch effort to halt the initiative, though their efforts almost surely will be in vain.
House and Senate Republicans late last week unveiled a final tax-reform package that includes a controversial provision allowing a section of ANWR — which has been one of the highest-profile battlegrounds in the energy vs. environment debate since the 1970s — to be opened to oil exploration. ANWR drilling was left out of the House’s original tax legislation but was included in the Senate’s, and now has found its way into the final version of the bill hashed out by the chambers’ conference committee last week.
Green groups are well aware that drilling in ANWR would represent a major blow to their agenda, and they’re pressuring lawmakers publicly and behind the scenes in the hopes of getting a last-minute change to the tax bill. Top environmental organizations also used public-relations moves to galvanize public opinion on their side of the debate.
The Sierra Club, for example, over the weekend projected anti-ANWR drilling messages onto the Trump International Hotel in Washington. The messages included quotes from Americans opposed to drilling, the group said.
“The American people are clear in their opposition to sacrificing this wild place. Support for protecting the Arctic Refuge has been shouted from rallies on the Hill and in members’ districts, delivered to offices in writing, sung by carolers, displayed in ice sculptures and now projected in giant letters,” said Lena Moffitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign. “It’s a can’t miss message that Congress must note and reject this rigged tax scheme.”
Other environmentalist groups say the inclusion of ANWR drilling makes the already destructive tax package even worse.
“Drilling in one of the last truly untouched places on Earth has no place in this train wreck of a tax bill,” said Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director at the League of Conservation Voters.
Republicans have long argued that fears over habitat and wildlife disruption due to oil drilling in the area are misguided and overblown.
The provision will green-light energy exploration only in a 1.5 million-acre swath of ANWR known as the “1002 area,” which lies along the coast. In total, ANWR spans more than 19 million acres, and the vast majority of the refuge will remain untouched by energy companies.
In a statement Sunday morning, the office of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said opening ANWR to drilling will both generate money for federal coffers and promote American energy independence.
“The benefits of energy development extend far beyond raising revenue. Energy development creates good-paying jobs. Where? In Alaska, of course, where ANWR is located, but also along the entire energy supply chain,” his office said. “For example, pipes and equipment must be built. Truckers must be hired to drive equipment. That means good jobs for Americans across the country. This also means a major economic boost for our economy.”
Republicans estimate ANWR drilling will create at least $1 billion in revenue over 10 years, though it’s unclear exactly when drilling will begin. Despite the authorization within the tax-reform package, it’s still likely to take years for companies to secure the land and go through necessary approval and permitting processes.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican and longtime proponent of ANWR drilling, said the prospect of energy exploration in her state helps the broader GOP goal of increasing economic growth and creating jobs.
“If we can successfully pass this legislation, the ultimate result will be more domestic jobs, larger paychecks, and greater energy security — and that is exactly what Alaska and our country need right now,” she said.