In years past, Republicans’ efforts to open up parts of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling have proved to be politically toxic.
Now, with a sweeping tax reform bill on the table, energy exploration in ANWR — which represents one of the most intense fights between energy advocates and environmentalists in recent history — could be the key to success in what is expected to be a close vote.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska Republican who helped scuttle a measure to repeal Obamacare this year when she sided with Democrats, is seen as a potential swing vote in the looming tax reform push. The Republicans’ recent addition of a provision to repeal Obamacare’s individual mandate to the tax bill raised more suspicion that Ms. Murkowski could ultimately vote against the bill.
But the veteran lawmaker last week came out in support of that health care provision, and she looks to be on track to support the tax bill when it eventually comes up for a full Senate vote.
Her support is tied to a bill — which would be wrapped into the tax package — that would open 2,000 acres of ANWR to oil drilling. The measure cleared Ms. Murkowski’s Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in a bipartisan 13-10 vote this month.
“Opening a small part of [ANWR] for responsible energy development will create thousands of good jobs, keep energy affordable for families and businesses, ensure a steady long-term supply of American energy, generate new wealth, reduce the federal deficit and strengthen our national security,” Ms. Murkowski said after the vote.
Days later, she wrote an editorial in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that laid the groundwork for her eventual support of the tax package and its provision that would dismantle Obamacare’s individual mandate. She stood by her vote against full Affordable Care Act repeal but said the more targeted approach is the right thing to do.
“It is important to emphasize that eliminating this tax penalty does not take care away from anyone. Instead, it provides important relief to those who have been penalized for choosing not to buy unaffordable insurance,” she said.
For Ms. Murkowski, analysts say, the calculation is simple.
“She’s not politically stupid. She knows that from the perspective of her state, opening ANWR is much more important than any change to health care,” said Jerry McBeath, a political science professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
Oil drilling in a small portion ANWR, projected to raise more than $1 billion over 10 years for the federal government, has become a political symbol in the broader debate over energy exploration and environmentalism. Green groups have made opposition to drilling in the sensitive area a central piece of their outreach and fundraising efforts, and have individually targeted lawmakers who backed ANWR drilling measures.
Their intense opposition continued after the Senate committee vote this month.
“If even the Arctic Refuge isn’t safe from drilling, then no park, forest or monument boundary will be able to keep the drills out,” said Athan Manuel, director of public lands protection at the Sierra Club.
In the past, each time ANWR drilling has seemed close to becoming a reality, it has been shot down — sometimes at the last moment.
In late 2005, Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican who made ANWR drilling a top priority for his decades in Congress, tried to tie the issue to a broader defense bill. Democrats led a filibuster to force removal of the ANWR measure and were joined by a handful of Republicans.
Mr. Stevens lit into his Senate colleagues just before the vote.
“We know this Arctic. You don’t know the Arctic at all,” he said in a passionate floor speech, going on to call it “the saddest day of my life.”
Moving forward, virtually all Republicans are likely to support an ANWR drilling bill. Possible exceptions could be Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Susan M. Collins of Maine. Both have voted against ANWR measures in the past.
Democrats contend that tying ANWR drilling to the tax bill is foolish. More broadly, they argue that the entire concept is misguided and should be rejected by the Senate.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, Washington Democrat and her party’s ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said there is a reason the federal government chose to protect ANWR and a reason Congress consistently has stood in the way of drilling.
“If we had the good sense decades ago to understand the appreciation of this refuge and the science behind it, I don’t understand why we would throw it out today and pretend that we are going to be able to protect what is such a unique place,” she said. “I’m just amazed that people want to throw away such an unbelievable ecological jewel of our planet.”