WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats and environmental groups are ramping up efforts to oppose drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as the Senate inches closer to a budget deal that could open the door to the long-sought oil rights.
On Tuesday, Senate Democrats gathered in protest of an upcoming budget vote that will open the door to a simple-majority vote in the Senate that could allow drilling in ANWR. Meanwhile, the League of Conservation Voters announced a $200,000 campaign to convince members of Congress that opening ANWR is simply a corporate giveaway that will do little to reduce the deficit.
LCV plans to urge people nationwide to contact their representatives to oppose drilling in ANWR. And they plan to target six House Republicans whom they think they can sway on the issue.
The budget bill headed to a vote this week sets funding limits for the government, though not specific funding or appropriations amounts. It doesn't need a presidential signature. It's a guideline for Congress, and sets out dictates for tax and revenue plans. Later, it guides a budget reconciliation bill, which will only require a 51-vote majority to pass — key for the 52-person Republican bloc.
As part of that, the proposed Senate bill would ask the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to come up with legislation that would raise $1 billion in revenue over 10 years. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who chairs that committee, is expected to find that revenue in ANWR drilling.
Earlier this year, Murkowski and Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan introduced legislation to allow oil and gas production on 2,000 acres of the coastal plain of ANWR. That is far smaller than the entire "1002" coastal area that the law says Congress could open to drilling — 1.5 million acres.
Consequently, the Senate could open ANWR with a simple majority vote that is largely centered around tax reform.
But Democrats opposed to the plan say it's an underhanded move. They're calling for more public attention and activism, and are hoping to secure enough Republican support to tank an ANWR provision.
Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and others are looking for just the right point in the budget fight to try to put a stop to the rider, he said at a press conference behind the Capitol Building on Tuesday morning.
Markey called the provision a "poison pill" that would harm "one of America's greatest national treasures." He accused lawmakers of using the budget process to "ram" Arctic drilling through the Senate in a "big oil polar payout."
Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet said he would not let the Senate sneak the provision through the process. "The tribes there and the species there are counting on us to make sure it doesn't happen," he said.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., lambasted ANWR proponents for repeated efforts to squeeze a provision into other must-pass legislation. "It tells you something that this idea does not stand on its own," she said. "When are they going to stop holding us all hostage to vote for the Arctic Wildlife Refuge being opened?" she asked.
Cantwell would have a front-row view to any efforts to use ANWR drilling to prop up revenues in the eventual budget reconciliation. She's the ranking member — the top Democrat — on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
The idea of opening the 1002 area to drilling has raised controversy in Congress for decades, though Alaska's delegation has remained uniformly in favor.
In Congress, opposition to drilling in ANWR is generally led by Democrats, with some support from moderate Republicans, such as Arizona Sen. John McCain and Maine Sen. Susan Collins.
But back in Alaska, the bipartisan agreement goes in the other direction — in support of opening ANWR. Former Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich made support for drilling in ANWR central in his campaign against Sen. Ted Stevens. And current Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, is eagerly supportive of opening the area to drilling.
Opponents are not only in the Lower 48, however. The Gwich'in people and several Alaska environmental groups regularly make their way to Washington, D.C., to lobby against drilling in ANWR. They say the land is sacred, and drilling would endanger the Porcupine caribou herd, polar bears, moose, musk oxen and wolves that live there. Roughly 200 types of birds migrate through the area.
Murkowski has not straight-away said that she plans to use the directive to open ANWR. But it is a longtime priority for the senator. And on the House side, her counterparts in the Natural Resources Committee — and Alaska Rep. Don Young — have been very clear about their intentions to do so.
Young has managed to move pro-ANWR drilling provisions through the House a dozen times, but been stalled in the Senate all but once. That time, President Bill Clinton vetoed the bill. In 2005, Stevens came close to allowing drilling in the refuge with a similar move — inserting a provision in a must-pass budget bill.