The last time congressional
Still, the 2005 bid to drill in the 19.6-million acre wilderness in Alaska failed as Democrats and some Republicans, supported by major environmental groups, pushed back with a politically popular message to conserve one last immense expanse of pristine wildlands from industrial depredation.
As part of the process for preparing the new federal budget, the
At a Capitol Hill news conference Tuesday, prominent Democrats said they viewed the $1-billion demand as a clear signal that Republicans are prepared to wage the fifth consequential political struggle since 1977 that pits oil production against Arctic wilderness protection.
Democrats vowed to block any bill that contains provisions that threaten the refuge.
“This is nothing more than a Big Oil polar payout,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who, as a member of the House, helped lead the 2005 opposition campaign. “This heartless budgetary scam underscores the backward priorities of
Republican lawmakers and their allies held their powder. The offices of Murkowski and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee did not respond to requests for interviews. Neither did the American Petroleum Institute, which has consistently supported oil exploration in the Arctic refuge.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was established in Alaska's northeast corner in 1960 by President Eisenhower "for the purpose of preserving unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values." Oil companies first formally expressed their interest in exploring the immense expanse of mountain, tundra and coastal plain in 1977 and were rebuffed by President Carter. In 1980, Congress approved expanding the refuge and also designated 1.5 million acres along the Arctic Ocean coast, known as the 1002 area, to be specifically set aside to study its potential for oil and gas development.
In early March 1989, the Senate approved a measure to lease the coastal plain for energy development. But the proposal died weeks later after the Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled its cargo into Alaska's Prince William Sound. In 1995, Congress tried again and approved a bill that included coastal oil exploration in the refuge. It was vetoed by President Clinton.
Though the 2017 Republican strategy to use the budget-writing process to open the Arctic is similar to the strategy that failed 12 years ago, the message and the forces aligned to support exploration are different. This year, Republican lawmakers are not stressing a dire need for new oil supplies. Instead, they say opening the refuge's 1.5 million-acre coastal plain to exploration would generate enough revenue from oil leases and royalties to help reduce America's budget deficit.
Trump and Interior Secretary
“I’m a geologist,” said Zinke, whose order was greeted with jubilation by Alaska Gov.
Environmental leaders say congressional Republicans are doing the bidding of a fossil fuel sector that is steadily losing market demand in the United States and globally to fuel-efficient engines and the advance of electric vehicles. Oil prices, they argue, are too low to attract companies to undertake expensive exploration and drilling operations in some of the planet's harshest weather and in a roadless wilderness.
Several environmental leaders interviewed also noted that they anticipated the issue and have been preparing since Trump's inauguration in January to again argue their case for preventing energy development in the refuge.
"The American public recognizes that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a special place. It represents America's best idea of preserving our natural heritage. This is a crown jewel of that idea," said Ana Unruh Cohen, director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Even in 2005, we rallied to protect it when prices were high. Now, we're exporting oil. It's not like we need to sacrifice any of the Arctic for oil company profits."
Schneider is a special correspondent.