Effort to open ANWR clears one more hurdle

  • Sen. Lisa Murkowski speaks with reporters as she arrives in the Capitol for the Senate Republicans’ lunch with President Donald Trump on Nov. 28. The Senate Budget Committee advanced the Republicans’ tax overhaul that day, which includes a provision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain to oil and gas development. (Photo/Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s legislation to open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration cleared another hurdle as expected Nov. 28, but one more big jump remains.

The ANWR provisions passed the Senate Budget Committee as part of the Republicans’ tax overhaul on a 12-11 party-line vote. The next and final stop for the controversial legislation is the Senate floor, where debate is sure to be lengthy and contentious.

The House passed its tax and budget plan Nov. 16.

With a 52-48 majority in the Senate, Republicans inserted opening the ANWR coastal plain into budget measures that only require a simple majority vote and not the filibuster-proof, 60-vote majority needed for standalone bills.

Lease revenue from the two lease sales prescribed in Murkowski’s legislation is expected to generate $1.1 billion, which would go towards offsetting a small part of the $1.4 trillion of tax cuts over 10 years in the Republican tax reform plan.

Murkowski chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which the Budget Committee earlier this year tasked with finding $1 billion in new revenues over 10 years to support the budget-tax plan. The directive was a nod to Murkowski to introduce the ANWR option.

Specifically, Murkowski’s plan would direct the Bureau of Land Management to hold at least two oil and gas lease sales for 400,000 acres or more of the 1.5 million-acre ANWR coastal plain— the first within four years and the second no later than seven years after the legislation passes. It sets federal resource royalties at 16.67 percent and would evenly split royalty revenue with the State of Alaska.

Finally, as has been the case with all the recent versions of ANWR legislation the delegation has introduced, it would limit permanent development to 2,000 acres in total.

Because the ANWR action is being used as a revenue offset to the tax cuts it is linked to the fate of the tax bill, which is far from a sure thing even among Senate Republicans. Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson and Tennessee’s Bob Corker both voted to move the budget reconciliation out of the Budget Committee but have not yet thrown their support behind the tax plan.

Johnson has said he has concerns with how corporate tax changes could affect small businesses and Corker has worries over growing the national debt if the economic growth presumed to grow the tax base and mitigate the impact of the tax cuts on the annual deficits doesn’t materialize.

While most of the Democratic criticism of the plan in comments after the committee vote focused on proposed corporate tax cuts, Washington Democrat Sen. Patty Murray referred to the larger tax bill as “a backdoor attempt to drill for oil in one of our planet’s most pristine places.”

Regardless, if Murkowski can finally be the one to lead ANWR-opening legislation through Congress — and to a president that will sign it — she will likely achieve legend status in Alaska political history for an accomplishment that long eluded her former colleague the late Sen. Ted Stevens.

Republicans are trying to replicate what the House did while George W. Bush was president in 2005, when it included opening the ANWR coastal plain to industry activity in the fiscal year 2006 budget; however, much to Stevens’ consternation, it stalled in the Senate due to a filibuster and failed to make the final budget.

Rep. Don Young regularly notes that he has led ANWR-opening legislation through the House more than a dozen times during his tenure, but nearly each time it has failed in the Senate. President Bill Clinton vetoed the one ANWR bill to reach a president’s desk in 1996.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

Updated: 
11/29/2017 - 8:06am

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