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New federal budget bill offers an opening for drilling in ANWR

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain in summer. (Loren Holmes / ADN archives)

WASHINGTON — Opponents of drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are on high alert as Congress prepares to move forward with its budget reconciliation bill for fiscal year 2018, which could include a must-pass drilling provision.

The 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, set aside a coastal area where drilling could be allowed in ANWR, but only with an act of Congress. Such a feat has eluded near-constant efforts by Alaska's congressional delegation in the nearly four decades since.

But the Trump administration has made clear that drilling in Alaska, and ANWR in particular, is a priority. Republicans hold both chambers of Congress, and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski chairs the Energy Committee. Alaska's sole congressman, Rep. Don Young, is not a chairman but is a senior member of the relevant House committee. If ever there was a time to successfully move on ANWR, it could be now.

A new budget reconciliation bill is offering that chance.

Republicans hope to pass major tax reform over the next year, and they plan to use the budget reconciliation process. The must-pass bill offers a framework for the year's tax and spending legislation. And it offers the chance to pass a piece of major legislation with only 51 votes in the Senate — no need for a filibuster-proof 60 senators on board.

The same budget mechanism that Congress used to attempt to pass health care legislation will be used in fiscal year 2018 to, perhaps, move major tax cuts.

The bill released Friday by the Senate Budget Committee includes reconciliation instructions for Murkowski's Energy and Natural Resources Committee: Find $1 billion in savings over the next 10 years.

That's where ANWR comes in. Murkowski could use the prospect of drilling in ANWR — and subsequent government revenues — to make the case for $1 billion in revenue that would offset some of the Senate's planned tax cuts.

The House already made a similar nod in its budget bill to raising federal revenue through drilling in ANWR.

The House Budget Committee passed a reconciliation measure in July that instructed the House Natural Resources Committee — on which Young sits — to come up with $5 billion in revenue to supplement the bill.

Similar instructions to the Senate Energy Committee would be "another kind of direct wink and nod" to ANWR, said Jonathan Asher, a legislative staffer at The Wilderness Society, in advance of the bill's release.

The House bill has not passed on the House floor, so the committee hasn't acted on those instructions yet, said committee spokeswoman Molly Block. The bill could get a vote in the House next week, she said.

The committee is looking at all of its options, Block said. The two main issues on the table are opening ANWR and legislation to speed and broaden permitting for drilling and mining, she said.

It is not clear how the committee will arrive at accurate figures for federal revenues from drilling in ANWR, Block said. She noted that there has been vocal criticism of the idea of using the figures the Congressional Budget Office came out with 10 years ago, when oil prices were far higher. Then, they said drilling in ANWR could net the federal government $5 billion.

Now, fans of ANWR drilling are hoping more for something in the $1 billion to $2 billion range.

But anti-drilling groups are hoping that broad attention to ANWR will make it the "poison pill" it has long been — a provision that would sink otherwise passable legislation.

"Drilling in the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge is wildly unpopular, and always has been across the Lower 48," said Lydia Weiss, government relations director at The Wilderness Society, one group wary of potential new legislative action.

But drilling in ANWR has far higher support in Alaska, and always among the state's congressional delegation.

"They have more than 50 times introduced legislation to drill in the Arctic refuge," Weiss noted.

The Interior Department recently began efforts to allow 3-D seismic work on the coastal plain, to determine what's available for drilling.

But the numbers have changed — something anti-drilling groups hope will work in their favor.

"Last time we had this debate, oil was at more than $130 (per barrel). And today we're at ($45 a barrel). Why on earth an oil company at $45 a barrel would go to the most remote, complicated, isolated place in the country to pursue new development is not a question that we or many analysts in the oil industry can answer," Weiss said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the Senate could pass the legislation with 50 votes. The Senate needs 51 votes, a simple majority. 

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