This week, the Senate plans to vote on the fiscal year 2018 budget bill that would clear the way for tax reform. If the bill is going to pass, Republican senators will need at least 50 of their 52 members to vote in favor of the budget; with four senators undecided, and the sting of the failed Affordable Care Act repeals still fresh, Congressional Republicans cannot afford to lose any votes. So, the bill includes a powerful sweetener.
The reconciliation instructions for the Senate budget order the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to generate $1 billion in revenue. That’s not much in federal budget terms, but to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)—the chair of the committee and one of the Republican “no” votes who scuttled the Obamacare repeal efforts—it looks an awful lot like long-awaited permission to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for drilling.
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Why do these instructions mean we’d start drilling in the Arctic Refuge?
The language in the Senate budget is vague: It simply instructs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to find a way to generate an additional $1 billion in revenue. But Senator Murkowski has made it known that the revenue would be raised by selling oil leases in the Arctic Refuge.
Like her father, Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-AK), did before her, Murkowski has taken opening up the Arctic Refuge to drilling as one of her core fights. She and fellow Alaskan Sen. Dan Sullivan (R) have previously introduced legislation that would allow oil and gas development on 2,000 acres of the Refuge’s coastal plain. At this point, Murkowski is pretty flippant about it: “You know me, I’m always trying to advance ANWR,” she said last month.
If the Energy and Natural Resources revenue request passes with the budget, the Senate could attach legislation opening the Refuge to drilling in its tax reform bill, which they plan to pass through reconciliation. That means the bill would only need a simple majority, rather than the regular 60 vote threshold. That’s crucial, because past attempts to open the Arctic for drilling have failed—once during the Clinton administration when it was vetoed by the president and again in 2005 when Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Susan Collins (R-ME) voted against it.
The lower vote threshold, combined with the fact that the provision is attached to tax reform—which Congressional Republicans and the administration need to pass—hands Murkowski something she likely wouldn’t be able to get through a normal legislative process.
Why does it matter if we drill in the Arctic?
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was set aside for protection by President Dwight D. Eisenhower more than 50 years ago, and it’s often referred to as “America’s last great wilderness.” The coastal plain, where drilling would occur, is considered its “biological heart.” The infrastructure, rigs, pipelines, roads, and machinery required in industrial-scale drilling operations would put the 37 species of land mammals, eight marine mammals, 42 fish species, and more than 200 migratory bird species within the Refuge at extreme risk of permanent habitat destruction.
Further, Alaskan Native communities rely on the Refuge. The Gwich’in people have inhabited this region for generations and depend on the health of its land and wildlife for food, clothing, and cultural survival. The Porcupine caribou herd, which primarily breeds on Alaska’s coastal plain, is a staple for the indigenous Gwich’in people. Their way of life would be irreparably changed if oil and gas interests are able to open the area to development.
And those are just the problems that arise if everything goes according to plan.
Drilling in any part of the Arctic is risky. The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, which dumped 11 million gallons near Prince William Sound, caused widespread damage that wildlife communities still have not recovered from. More recent attempts to explore Arctic drilling haven’t shown much improvement—Royal Dutch Shell’s $7 billion Arctic Ocean oil exploration program was abandoned after the company’s oil containment dome was “crushed like a beer can” during testing. And that failure was during “calm, tranquil conditions in the best time of year,” raising serious concerns about Shell’s ability to prevent an oil spill in more turbulent conditions.
But isn’t it important to drill there as a revenue-generator?
One reason the Alaskan congressional delegation wants to open the Arctic Refuge is to put money into Alaska’s Permanent Fund, which pays out annual dividends to Alaska residents from oil and gas production in the state. The trouble is, the Refuge is not nearly the cash cow that drilling proponents make it out to be.
A Center for American Progress analysis found that offering oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is likely to yield a maximum of $37.5 million in revenue for the U.S. Treasury over the next 10 years—less than 4 percent of the $1 billion that Senate drilling proponents claim could be raised, and 0.01 percent of the increased deficit in the tax bill. It’s not even enough revenue to cover the costs of President Trump’s personal tax cut under the Senate Republican plan.
The upcoming debate in Congress about whether to sell out the Arctic Refuge is not actually about budgets or taxes. The caribou of the coastal plain are not grazing atop a pot of gold. Americans should see the Arctic Refuge drilling rider for what it is: a blatant attempt to buy Senator Murkowski’s vote.