Efforts to package the tax overhaul with a provision that would allow for drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have been met with a procedural snag, but Republicans aren’t worried yet.
Senate Democrats objected to a measure that would open a portion of the 19-million acre wildlife refuge, claiming its pairing with the Republican tax bill violates a rule intended to limit budget procedures to provisions that are primarily fiscal.
A Senate official late Wednesday sided with Democrats, ruling the measure is not exempt to an environmental law requiring an assessment from the Interior Department. League of Conservation Voters’ Tiernan Sittenfeld said the road bump “is what happens when you cut corners and try to sneak drilling into an already terrible tax bill.”
Republicans responded to the ruling by offering new language in the legislation and said that drilling would still advance should the tax bill pass, Reuters reported.
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“It’s unprecedented,” Executive director of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center Elisabeth Dabney said. “It would open up the entire coastal plain to development.”
The Northern Alaska Environmental Center was founded to maintain subsistence and the cultural identity of the expansive, untouched Alaskan tundra — both of which are at risk under the drilling provision. It’s home to the Gwich’in, a group of indigenous people, who have subsisted there for generations.
The wildlife, particularly porcupine caribou herd, polar bears and muskox, would also be negatively impacted should the refuge be opened for drilling.
What’s more, the ANWR is among the world’s more fragile ecosystems, which ultimately means even a small disturbance could create “irretrievable loss of wilderness,” according to the environmental organization.
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“Essentially we need to be moving away from fossil fuel, it’s just irresponsible to continue on this path from an environmental perspective,” Dabney said. “From a cultural perspective, for subsistence survival, it’s highly irresponsible in many ways.”
For now, the fate of the drilling provision remains up in the air, though it’s failure would prove a massive defeat for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who introduced the bill and is a key drilling proponent.
While opening the ANWR has previously been a hallmark environmental issue — hotly debated by Democrats and Republicans in the past —discussion on the matter has mostly been drown out by other concerns regarding the tax bill, specifically its benefits for the rich and consequences for the poor and working class.
“It’s really not gotten the attention it should,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a member of the Energy and Natural Resource Committee, told Politico. “It’s not just the budget discussion it’s about everything else that’s going on, the flurry of all sorts of other news.”
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President Eisenhower in 1960 established the Arctic National Wildlife Range to “preserve wilderness, wildlife, and recreation.” President Jimmy Carter in 1980 expanded the Arctic refuge’s size — and changed the name — in the Alaska Interest Lands Conservation Act.
The latter legislation designated a 1.5 million acre-parcel, typically called “10-02” or the “Coastal Plain,” for possible drilling in the future if approved by lawmakers.
Alaska Oil & Gas Association President Kara Moriarty said at least 75 percent of Alaskans have “long supported” opening up the designated area for drilling. They see access “as the opportunity to develop energy, the opportunity to have that growth and maintain the economy.
“When you look at the Alaska economy, about a third of it comes from oil and gas industry jobs,” she explained.
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According to data released by the House Committee on Natural Resources, developing the ANWR could create as many as 130,000 jobs and generate as much as $440 billion in new governor revenue, but environmental activists have pushed back against the numbers.
An analysis by the Center for American Progress, suggests drilling would only bring in about $35 million. The nonprofit, an “independent nonpartisan policy institute,”xblamed the discrepancies in projections on outdated resources and estimates.
Republicans have pushed to allow drilling and gas exploration in the area long before they promised it would help pay for the tax cuts promised by President Trump.
President Bill Clinton in 1995 vetoed a budget package that suggested opening the ANWR, and a second attempt to grant access to the land was ended by a Democratic filibuster in 2005.
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