The latest battle over public lands has erupted not in the arid West but farther north, in arctic Alaska. Late last week, the Republican-held Senate passed a budget resolution that could open 1.5 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for future energy development, much to the protest of Senate Democrats and conservationists. The new resolution called for the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, to raise $1 billion over the next decade and created means for bills that seek to offset proposed tax cuts—like drilling in the ANWR—to pass without the Senate’s standard 60-vote threshold, essentially cutting out Democrats from future votes on energy and natural resources.
The ANWR “is the last, wildest place we have in America and the tribes there, and the species that are there, are counting on all of us to make sure this doesn’t happen,” Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democratic, told CBS News prior to the vote.
The budget resolution is part of Republican efforts to cut taxes in the upcoming fiscal year. Allowing energy development in the ANWR is the most likely way the Energy and Natural Resources Committee will make up for its decreased funding in wake of the new cuts.
A struggle over whether to the drill in the 19-plus-million-acre refuge—the so-called crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System—dates back to the 1970s. Conservationists and environmentalists have long insisted that allowing oil and gas companies to lease and drill in the refuge would spoil this pristine wilderness, on which polar bears, grizzlies, caribou, and musk oxen depend. But legislatures—Murkowski being the latest—have pushed to allow drilling in the ANWR for economic benefit, given the area’s vast oil reserves. “We need to be expanding our energy development in our federal areas,” Murkowski told the New York Times.
Similarly, Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska told the Hill that increased energy development would result in more jobs for Americans and spur economic growth. More drilling would also mean “decreased federal budgets and trade deficit and a more sustainable global environment,” he said. “Because no one in the world produces energy more responsibly than Americans, especially Alaskans.”
News of the budget resolution’s passing sparked intense criticism from environmental and sportsmen’s groups, however. In a statement, John Gale of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers described the vote as the first skirmish in a long fight to keep the iconic refuge open for hunting and fishing, and closed to energy exploration. “The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a bucket-list destination for sportsmen all over the country,” he said. “We’re counting on our elected leaders to seize the next opportunity to safeguard it—not give it away to the oil and gas industry.”
The resolution to drill in the ANWR must go through several more steps and will need to be voted on by both chambers of Congress before final confirmation. That said, should it pass both houses, President Trump has been clear about his intention to open up public land for energy development and has given no indication that he wouldn’t sign it.
Ana Unruh Cohen, a director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told High Country News that, ultimately, the refuge’s future is in the public’s hands. “It’s crucial that the American public raise their voice,” she said, “and let their lawmakers know that they want to continue to protect the Arctic Refuge from oil drilling.”
Read the Times’ analysis of the drilling debate for more.