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US House passes budget bill that provides option for opening ANWR to drilling

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House on Thursday passed a budget resolution that offers a chance for legislation allowing drilling in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

The vote is a major step forward for an effort that has occupied Alaska's congressional delegation since the passage of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA.

The bill passed 219-206, a largely partisan vote with 18 Republican congressmen crossing the aisle to vote against it, along with all voting Democrats. The $1.1 trillion budget plan for fiscal year 2018 outlines the spending plan and priorities, including $622 billion on defense.

A similar bill passed out of the Senate Budget Committee later Thursday. It is expected to head to the Senate floor in the coming weeks, after the Senate returns from a weeklong recess on Oct. 16.

What's next will require some footwork from Alaska's congressional delegation, and a bit of luck. Allowing drilling in ANWR through budget reconciliation will ultimately require congressional success on a broad array of tax reform legislation. Similar success eluded the Senate on health care earlier this year.

How it works

The budget resolution includes a provision asking the House Natural Resources Committee to offer up legislation that provides $5 billion in new federal revenue to reduce the deficit between fiscal years 2018 and 2027. The committee — a longtime home to Alaska Rep. Don Young — is likely to find some of that in federal revenue from opening ANWR's coastal plain to drilling.

The so-called 10-02 area, named after section 10-02 of ANILCA, can be opened to drilling only with the consent of Congress. Alaska's congressional delegation has doggedly sought to open ANWR for decades, to no avail. Such a bill passed out of Congress in 1995, but President Bill Clinton vetoed it.

Young made a straightforward plea to his colleagues on the House floor Wednesday night, advocating for using ANWR to bolster the federal budget.

"The small area of 10-02 in the National Wildlife range is an area of 2,000 acres — smaller than Dulles Airport," Young said, referencing a northern Virginia airport used by many lawmakers flying in and out of Washington. "Potentially, though, we have a little over 20 billion barrels of oil. Think how much money that would bring to the Treasury immediately through the bidding process."

Young argued that the 10-02 area has always been destined for drilling, and that it will reduce the nation's debt and create hundreds of thousands of jobs, nationally.

Young disputed assertions by environmental and Alaska Native groups opposed to opening up the area that it would disturb the area's caribou population and damage the fragile environment.

Nearby Prudhoe Bay "has produced 17 billion barrels of oil. When we started there was 5,000 caribou. Now we have about 31,000 caribou. So oil didn't disturb them," Young said.

Those environmental and Alaska Native groups were not pleased with the House passage.

The president of The Wilderness Society, Jamie Williams, called the move a "shameless attempt to hijack the federal budget process and push an exceptionally unpopular idea through Congress so that President Trump can sell off one of our greatest national treasures to the oil industry. The Arctic Refuge is simply too fragile and special to drill and we have a moral obligation to protect it for future generations of Americans."

Opponents, including the Gwich'in Steering Committee and the Alaska Wilderness League, said that the refuge is a special place, home to "musk oxen, wolves, imperiled polar bears, and nearly 200 species of migratory birds that migrate to six continents and all 50 states."

Soon after the House passed its version of the budget guidelines, the Senate's budget committee passed a similar bill Thursday afternoon, with a partisan vote of 12-11.

The Senate resolution included instructions for Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski's energy committee to submit legislation to raise $1 billion in revenue.

The bills don't call out ANWR by name, but the intent is broadly understood, and it offers a positive move for Murkowski, who voted against her party's effort to use the fiscal year 2017 budget reconciliation to repeal the Affordable Care Act and recast the nation's Medicaid program.

The provision didn't get much attention in committee, and it remains unclear how much impact an ANWR provision would have on eventual passage of a bill. Opening the refuge to drilling is not universally popular among Republicans. But ANWR is only one among a wide range of sticky issues the bill will face as Republicans endeavor to pass a major tax law overhaul.

The bill "provides an excellent opportunity for our committee to raise $1 billion in federal revenues while creating jobs and strengthening our nation's long-term energy security," Murkowski said in a statement  last week, never mentioning ANWR.

But Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said Thursday evening that he supports opening ANWR and thinks the budget bill is an apt place for it. Sullivan said he supports focusing on tax reform, regulatory relief and energy production as a way to bolster economic growth.

Historically, several Republican senators have opposed opening ANWR to drilling. Their ranks include Arizona Sen. John McCain and Maine Sen. Susan Collins, both recent allies of Murkowski's in the Senate's health care debates.

Sullivan said that he has been telling his colleagues that times have changed and that when it comes to ANWR, "the debate has not kept up with the technology." By that, he means that the surface footprint of oil and gas operations has grown much smaller over the years, while the ability to reach stretches of oil underground has grown.

And Sullivan said he has been telling senators about Point Thomson, an ExxonMobil project just a few miles from the border of ANWR. "And it was done without harming anything, just benefiting Alaskan workers and our state, tremendously," Sullivan said.

The White House released a statement Thursday indicating approval of the budget track by President Donald Trump. The budget bill "creates a pathway to fix our rigged and burdensome tax code and establishes a framework for rebuilding our military and securing the border," the White House said in the statement.

The budget resolutions will not require the president's signature, but will offer a guidepost for legislation to significantly alter the U.S. tax code and open ANWR to drilling that would ultimately only require a simple majority. That is key in the Senate, where Republicans hold only 52 seats, and are easily stymied when they need to reach a bipartisan 60 votes to avoid filibuster from Democrats.

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