Alaskans testify at U.S. Senate hearing on drilling in ANWR

WASHINGTON — Numerous Alaskans testified Thursday before a U.S. Senate committee run by Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski about what it would mean to open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.


10 a.m. ADT: Closing remarks

At the close of the hearing, Murkowski and the committee's top Democrat, Sen. Maria Cantwell, sparred over the value of drilling in ANWR, and whether it is possible to do it without major environmental damage.

"It just ought to be clear … just admit you're going to destroy the Arctic wildlife refuge," Cantwell said. "I think it's one of the most unbelievable things on planet Earth," she said. But Alaskans have to choose — keep it closed, or "drill and destroy," she said.

"We clearly disagree that this is an either/or proposition," Murkowski said in response. To say that Alaskans would "destroy our environment for a short-term gain is offensive. I'm offended."

Alaskans "have options" to develop the "resource-rich" place, she said. "Nobody is talking about building another Prudhoe" Bay, she said.

Panel 3: The technical discussion

Aaron Schutt, president, Doyon Ltd.

View Schutt's prepared testimony here.

Lois Epstein, Arctic program director at The Wilderness Society, reminded the Senate panel of earlier blowouts and oil spills in Alaska North Slope drilling. One 2012 blowout “took a month to plug… because of frigid temperatures,” she said.

Allowing drilling in ANWR would be a "black mark for Alaska and this Congress," Epstein testified.

View Epstein's prepared testimony here.

Richard Glenn, executive vice president for land and natural resources with Arctic Slope Regional Corp., said he did not come to Washington, D.C., to "debate the sacredness" of the land within ANWR. "To us, all the lands are sacred," Glenn said.

But he also said that, as a geologist, he'd like to see the land's resource potential tapped.

View Glenn's prepared testimony here.

Pat Pourchot, former special assistant to the secretary of the Interior for Alaska affairs, testified that while he is aware the financial benefit drilling in ANWR could have for Alaska, he thinks the area is "more appropriately left as wilderness."

Pourchot, who worked in the Obama administration's Interior Department, spoke of his many visits to the refuge, hiking its mountains and floating its rivers. "There can be no denying that the Arctic refuge is one of the most special and spectacular places on the planet," Pourchot said.

View Pourchot's prepared testimony here.

Matthew Cronin, biologist and former researcher at University of Alaska Fairbanks, testified that the caribou herds that travel in Alaska's existing North Slope oil fields have remained vibrant despite drilling there.

Drilling is limited to winter, on ice, and in the summer, "caribou use the oil fields quite extensively," Cronin said.

Research shows that some herds "grew substantially through peak oil development," he testified.

"I think that oil and gas development in the 10-02 area of ANWR can be done with limited impacts on caribou by using proven mitigation measures. First, the Porcupine caribou herd does not calve in the 10-02 area every year. Second, because the primary concern is impacts during the calving period, simple adjustment of timing of oil field activity can greatly mitigate possible disturbance to caribou during this time," Cronin testified.

View Cronin's prepared testimony here.

Panel 2: ‘Dictating the future of what Alaskans want to do’

Alaska Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott defended Alaska's ability to drill in ANWR and protect natural resources, both in testimony and in response to questions from senators on the panel.

So far in the Arctic, oil resources have been "carefully developed and constrained," Mallott said. The state has the ability to respond to concerns and aggressively manage the habitat in ANWR, Mallott said.

Louisiana Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy, questioning Mallott, held up a set of photos given him by Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan showing limited impacts to the ground when drilling is completed in the winter, using ice roads and ice-based well pads. "All that remains" is an 8-by-8-foot well house, Cassidy said

Under questioning, Mallott also told Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., that he is confident that potential revenues to the government from drilling would not only meet the $1 billion goal of the budget but "will be many multiples of that number."

Read Mallott's prepared testimony here.

Greg Sheehan, principal deputy director, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, couldn't answer all of one senator's questions about the potential drilling in ANWR, but he argued that much of that depends on the bill language that Congress ultimately uses.

Maine Sen. Angus King (I) wanted to know about a touted 2,000-acre limitation on drilling touted by Sullivan. That small footprint seemed reasonable, if contiguous, King said. But is it? Or does the limit allow for "12 acres here, 10 acres over there?" he asked.

Sheehan also could not tell King the expected number of wells. "Are we talking 10 wells, 100 wells or 1,000 wells?" King asked. Sheehan said that depends on Congress.

But Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., argued during the hearing that the decision should not be up to the federal government. With the entire congressional delegation, 90 percent of the Alaska Legislature and 70 percent of Alaskans in favor of drilling, he said, "I just think it's a bit arrogant for Washington, D.C. … to be in some way dictating the future of what Alaskans want to do," Daines said.

Some Interior employees do have concerns, "but we have wildlife challenges we're challenged with every day," Sheehan said.

Read Sheehan's prepared testimony here.

Samuel Alexander, tribal member, Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich'in Tribal Government, offered the hearing's first voice in opposition, aside from the committee's top Democrat, Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell.

Alexander said his people see the efforts to open ANWR to drilling as an attack on their way of life and the caribou herd, which has its calving grounds in the 10-02 area. The Gwich'in call the area the "sacred place where life begins."

"We take the long view and embrace our traditional ways, because they've served us for millennia," Alexander said.

Alexander, a veteran, also argued that the the benefits of opening ANWR are limited. It would be "a drop in the bucket for our budget ills," he said, and he questioned the national security benefit of more American oil when the country is already a net exporter of energy.

While his tribe does not live within the boundaries of the potential drilling area, the "boundaries of Gwich'in nation follow the path of the caribou," Alexander said. "We're concerned that … any kind of disruption" could bring detrimental impacts to the food safety of his people, he said.

Read Alexander's prepared testimony here.

Matthew Rexford, tribal administrator of the Native Village of Kaktovik, offered an Alaska Native perspective from inside ANWR. The Kaktovik village corporation owns land in and around ANWR, and "since the mid-1980s our people have fought to open our homelands to responsible exploration" of oil and gas, Rexford said.

Rexford touted "decades of experience with the oil and gas industry" and said his people want the opportunity to draw on the potential financial resources available to them there.

Read Rexford's prepared testimony here.

Panel 1: ‘A little dot on my nose’

Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, testified that there were not three people who cared more about Alaska's environment than those on the dais, and that there is a "fundamental disconnect" between the arguments about potential environmental damage to ANWR and current drilling practices.

"A lot has changed," he said.

Alaska Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, told the committee that the 10-02 area that would be subject to drilling is such a small area of disturbance, it equates to a "little dot on my nose" that he drew with blue ink. "I weigh 225 pounds," he said.

Young expressed frustration with the Senate, which he said stopped bills he moved to open ANWR to drilling 12 of 13 times. The one time it passed the Senate, President Bill Clinton vetoed the bill.

ANWR's coastal area is "a flat terrain" set aside "for the development, not presevation," Young said.

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, told the Senate committee that opening the area to drilling would fulfill the promises made to Alaska when it became a state. Oil and gas drilling account for 70 percent of the state's income, he said.

The trans-Alaska pipeline sits three-quarters empty, just miles from the potential drilling area in ANWR — "the most prolific area of hydrocarbons you can imagine," Walker said.

Walker, who signed a gubernatorial order on climate change this week, argued that climate change has impacted Alaska, but the state needs to exploit its natural resources to pay to deal with it.

Read Walker's full prepared testimony here.



Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski has regularly offered up legislation to open the so-called "10-02" coastal area of ANWR to drilling, but may have the best chance of passage in decades by attaching a provision to tax cut legislation congressional Republicans are planning for this year. As chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Murkowski is in charge of finding $1 billion in additional tax revenue, which she hopes to draw from federal leasing profits.

Congress set aside an area of ANWR for potential drilling and exploration in 1980 but required an act of Congress and a presidential sign-off for that to happen. Despite consistent efforts by the state's congressional delegation in the nearly four decades since, success on that front has remained elusive.

Why there’s a hearing

The Senate passed budget resolution set up a process for a "budget reconciliation" vote that could include major changes to the U.S. tax code. As part of the resolution, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski's Energy and Natural Resources Committee was asked to find $1 billion in new revenue. (It isn't a hard number — the goal is not a balanced budget. The proposed tax cuts outline includes a $1.5 trillion deficit.)

While it doesn't say "ANWR" anywhere in the budget resolution, the goal of Senate and House leaders — and Alaska's congressional delegation — is clear: to use the bill to open ANWR's 10-02 coastal area to drilling. That can only be done with an act of Congress, approved by the president. The budget reconciliation process gives Republicans the chance to pass tax reform — and possibly open ANWR — with only a simple majority, requiring 50 votes in the Senate.

[U.S. Senate passes bill that offers a chance to open Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling]

The House will pass its tax cut bill first, but it won't include a revenue-raising ANWR provision. That's in the interest of speed: The House can only move a bill through one committee at a time, so it's sticking with provisions that are under the purview of the Ways & Means Committee.

The ANWR provision, if it makes it through, would be in a Senate version of the bill. The House and Senate versions of the bills, once passed, would be reconciled in a conference committee.

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Washington, D.C.