Senate passes tax bill with ANWR drilling measure

Congressional Republicans on Tuesday came close to passing a sweeping tax reform with its historic measure to open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, but a procedural hiccup delayed a final vote.

Alarmed conservation groups, acknowledging that passage was likely delayed just for a day, vowed to step up the attack to protect the 19-million-acre refuge.

Republicans are handing a "fat lump of coal" to Americans who worry about wildlife in the refuge or climate change caused by burning fossil fuels, said Brett Hartl, government affairs director with the Center for Biological Diversity.

"The next step frankly is to battle this in the agencies," he said Tuesday. "The bill doesn't waive environmental laws and it doesn't waive the process. It's not like the drills go in tomorrow."

The measure to open ANWR, written by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, requires the federal government to hold two lease sales within seven years, in a 1.5-million-acre section of the coastal plain. The first lease sale must be held within four years, and could lead to drilling and oil production.

Murkowski said the provision will create thousands of jobs in Alaska and other states, and new wealth and security for the country through oil production.

"When you have small area with enormous potential, why would we continue to deny that opportunity?" she said.


The fight to stop drilling in ANWR has just begun, said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, an Alaskan and Canadian indigenous group that argues development will hurt caribou villagers eat.

"We are devastated by today's news," she said.

[Mystery surrounds only exploration well drilled in ANWR.]

The tax bill glided through the House on Tuesday, but the Senate parliamentarian raised minor problems in three areas, unrelated to the ANWR measure, according to news accounts.

The House was expected to vote again Wednesday.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said in a statement Tuesday he's hoping to get the ANWR provision across the finish line, after fighting to open the coastal plain for more than 40 years.

Murkowski, speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday before an expected vote in that chamber, said opponents have long argued that the refuge will become an industrial wasteland if drilling is allowed.

But development will occur safely, and won't be done at the expense of the environment or local residents, she said.

[Oil industry appears interested in ANWR, but how much will it generate?]

Murkowski said the coastal plain is estimated to hold 10 billion barrels of oil. Oil production there could put hundreds of billions of dollars into state and federal treasuries, with production royalties.

"The days ahead look brighter for us," she said.

She wore Incredible Hulk earrings Tuesday in honor of the late Sen. Ted Stevens, who famously wore Hulk ties during debates in the Senate to open ANWR, according to news reports.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, speaking from the Senate floor late Tuesday, said passage of the measure has been a long time coming for most Alaskans.

"I can't begin to describe the elation that will be felt by many, so many, in my state, when this passes," he said.

He said it was a crushing day for Stevens in 2005, when Stevens was unable to get a measure opening the coastal plain through the Senate.

Stevens, 82 at the time and a longtime advocate of drilling in ANWR, called it the "saddest day" of his life. He died in 2010, in a plane crash in Alaska.

Sullivan said voting for the measure will be one of the greatest joys of his life.


He added: "I'm certain Ted Stevens will be joyfully watching from above, smiling."

After debating much of Tuesday, the Senate voted on the tax bill well after midnight. It was approved in that chamber, 51 to 48.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or