Senate committee passes ANWR O&G bill
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November 21, 2017
Senate committee passes ANWR O&G bill

In a largely party-line vote—with only Democratic Senator Joe Manchin (WV) siding with Republicans—the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources approved budget reconciliation legislation that would open about 2,000 acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska to oil and gas (O&G) development.  

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Titled the Alaska Oil and Gas Production Act (S. 49), the bill authorizes the exploration, leasing, development, production, and transportation of O&G to and from the Coastal Plain of Alaska, also called the 1002 Area. Lease sales under the bill would be managed by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which would also be required to set and follow environmental protection standards for the Coastal Plain.

O&G development in the ANWR has long been a fiercely contested issue in Congress, which until now has not found the votes to authorize such activity.  The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the ANWR has between 5.7 billion to 16 billion barrels of recoverable oil, which, if accurate, means the area holds the largest undeveloped conventional oil resources in the United States.

One ten-thousandth of ANWR

The legislation was spearheaded by Alaska’s Senate delegation, Republicans Lisa Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy Committee, and Dan Sullivan. In a recent committee hearing, Murkowski said that the 1002 Area is not a federal wilderness. She also noted that in 1980, Congress specifically designated the 1002 Area for consideration for O&G exploration.

“Today, Alaskans are asking to develop just 2,000 federal acres within it—about one ten-thousandth of all of ANWR,” Murkowski said, adding that limited, responsible development would generate new wealth and prosperity for Alaska and the nation.  

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the legislation will raise nearly $1.1 billion over the 10-year budget window. Between rents, royalties, and federal taxes, it would raise substantially greater revenues once production from the 1002 Area begins, Murkowski said. 

Not an oil field

Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the ranking member on the committee, said the purpose of a national wildlife refuge is to conserve wildlife and wildlife habitat for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.  Cantwell notes that the ANWR supports more than 250 species, including caribou, polar bears, grizzly bears, wolves, muskoxen, wolverines, and migratory birds.

“We think that it is a critical habitat that should be protected and that it is not consistent with oil and gas development,” said Cantwell. “Adding oil and gas development as a purpose of the ANWR doesn’t make any sense for a wildlife refuge—it certainly does if you want to drill, but no other national wildlife refuge lists oil and gas development as a purpose of a wildlife refuge.”

Stakeholder reactions

“Developing our resources in ANWR is supported by strong majorities of Alaskans, and would generate jobs, government revenue, and spur economic growth,” said Erik Milito, the American Petroleum Institute’s upstream director. “The natural gas and oil industry has the technology and expertise, along with decades of experience, to safely develop our energy resources in the Arctic while protecting the surrounding environment. Responsible access to ANWR is also in our national security interest, with other nations like Russia, Canada, and Norway already actively exploring the Arctic region.”  

Kristen Miller, conservation director of the Alaska Wilderness League, had a different perspective.

“This bill waives every environmental law to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the people and wildlife that depend on it,” said Miller. “It will turn our nation’s wildest refuge into an oilfield, despite the protests of the Gwich’in and the American people who have wanted to see the Arctic Refuge protected for more than 30 years.” The Gwich'in (translation—people of the caribou), a Native American people of about 7,000, occupy 15 villages in northeast Alaska and northwest Canada, mostly above the Arctic Circle.

In contrast to Murkowski’s statement that only 2,000 acres will be affected, Miller says the bill would mandate an aggressive O&G program across the entire 1.5 million acres of the Coastal Plain where polar bears den and caribou calve.

“America’s Serengeti will become a series of roads, pipelines, well pads and gravel mines,” said Miller. “It will risk the subsistence culture of the Gwich’in, increase our nation’s debt, and hand our public lands over to the oil and gas industry.”

The text of S. 49 is at here.

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