Arctic refuge drilling closer as Senate moves to open site

By MATTHEW DALY Markets Associated Press

Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one step closer to oil and gas drilling.

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A budget measure approved by the Republican-controlled Senate late Thursday allows Congress to pursue legislation allowing oil and gas exploration in the remote refuge on a majority vote.

Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan of Alaska said Congress can create jobs and enhance energy security by opening a small section of the 19.6 million-acre site to drilling.

"More energy production means more American jobs, more American economic growth, more American national security ... and a more sustainable global environment, because no one in the world produces energy more responsibly than Americans, especially Alaskans," Sullivan said.

But Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state said drilling was not worth the risks to a fragile ecosytem that serves as important habitat for polar bears, caribou and migratory birds.

"The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most pristine areas of the United States, and we have been protecting it for decades for a reason," Cantwell said, criticizing the idea of sacrificing biologically important areas "for oil that we don't need. It's not worth it."

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The wildlife refuge has been the focus of a political fight for more than three decades. President Bill Clinton vetoed a GOP plan to allow drilling in the refuge in 1995, and Cantwell-led Democrats defeated a similar GOP plan in 2005.

The Trump administration and congressional Republicans are pushing to revive the drilling plan as a way to help pay for proposed tax cuts promised by President Donald Trump. The GOP-approved budget includes $1 billion in revenue from drilling leases over 10 years.

Democrats scoffed at that claim, saying the plan would generate far less revenue at a time when oil production in the lower 48 states, especially Texas and North Dakota, is booming. Royal Dutch Shell abandoned an oil exploration program in the Arctic Ocean in 2015 amid concerns that lower global oil prices made drilling in the remote region a risky investment.

Debate on the drilling plan got personal Thursday night.

Sullivan said he did not appreciate critical comments by Cantwell and other Democrats from the lower 48.

"Senator Murkowski and I care a lot more about the environment, the wildlife, the pristine wilderness in our great, amazing state than any other member in this body," he said. "I don't need senators coming down from places like Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, Vermont and Rhode Island talking about Alaska's environment, OK? With all due respect, I know a heck of a lot more about it than any of them."

Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., was unbowed.

The GOP plan would "hand over the wildest place left in America to Big Oil," Markey said. "This is nothing more than fossil fuel folly."

Markey accused Republicans of using the budget process "to ram through drilling in the crown jewel of America's wildlife refuge system" because they know they lack the 60 votes needed to approve the bill under regular order in the Senate.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, joined with Democrats to oppose opening the refuge, while Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., backed drilling.

Any oil drilling is likely years away, although the Interior Department is moving forward with plans to conduct seismic studies to help determine where oil is located, a first step toward drilling.

Congress has sole authority to determine whether oil and gas drilling can take place in the refuge.