Opening ANWR to drilling holds promise for Alaska

Our congressional delegates looked delighted earlier this month at the celebration of the Republican tax bill's passage on the White House lawn. But it's a safe bet that it wasn't just the tax bill, though they all voted for it, that inspired those expressions. That delight was due to the opening of the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration. That was the prize.

Alaska's congressional delegation has fought for the opening of the ANWR coastal plain to such development for – give or take – 40 years. Now we should see the first lease sale some time in the next four years, with a second within seven years.

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We've long argued in this space that careful oil and gas exploration should be done in the coastal plain. The reasons are simple. Old estimates had the plain holding between 6 billion and 16 billion barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas. If such estimates pan out, Alaska would stand to gain billions in revenue, good jobs in a stronger economy, a pipeline continuing to run at high capacity and healthy deposits into our Permanent Fund, the state's long-term savings account that is just about as old as the fight to open ANWR.

The nation would gain as well, with a 50-50 split with Alaska on lease sale and royalty revenue (we'll set aside for now any arguments about the 90-10 promised split at statehood), and increased energy independence, a national security asset in a volatile world.

All to the good. But let's keep our feet on the ground. Opening the coastal plain isn't opening the gates of heaven. There's much work to be done before the first lease sale, the first order of business being to get a better handle on recoverable oil and gas reserves. As Tim Bradner pointed out in a column earlier this month, there are years to go before drilling — environmental studies, likely litigation, lease preparation. Despite technological advances in recent years that allow more a more accurate diagnosis, there are no guarantees that drilling will strike Prudhoe-class reserves. Even if all goes well, oil production could be 10 years out, and much can happen in 10 years that could change the ANWR equation, including further effects of climate change.

[Before the Arctic refuge is drilled: Lawsuits, studies and a decade of waiting]

To drilling foes we'd say that opening the coastal plain isn't opening the gates of hell, either. Foes have claimed oil and gas exploration on the coastal plain would destroy the Porcupine caribou herd and destroy the way of life of the Gwich'in people of Alaska and Canada by killing subsistence. We respect the deep concern of the Gwich'in and others. Done right, exploration and development will harm neither the caribou nor the ways of the people who depend on them. Were that not the case, we believe fewer Alaskans would support opening ANWR. The late Gov. Wally Hickel, a champion of opening the coastal plain, was succinct: "If we can't do it right, we won't do it."

Sen. Lisa Murkowski has pledged that no corners will be cut in protecting the environment and the way of life of those who live in the region. That's a pledge that everyone involved must keep.

To many drilling foes the coastal plain, and all of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for that matter, is sacred. Any industrial activity is desecration; therefore no compromise is possible. They argue that one of the last great wilderness regions of the earth, cradle and home to so much northern life, should be left as is. But oil and gas development in ANWR would happen in only a small part of the refuge, and that development can be managed with minimal impact on wildlife and people. As it stands now, the risk is well worth carefully taking.

The key word is carefully. Oil explorers will tread on precious ground and should hunt accordingly. But after decades of battling, opening ANWR's coastal plain to oil and gas development still holds promise for Alaska.

BOTTOM LINE: Green light for ANWR exploration is opportunity and challenge for Alaska.