WASHINGTON — Alaskans offered hours of testimony in the U.S. Senate on Thursday, mostly in favor of opening the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling in a major bid to attach a provision to upcoming tax legislation.
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is responsible for rolling out legislation to attach to a tax bill that would raise $1 billion in revenue over 10 years. Her answer — and the reason Senate leadership gave her the chance — is ANWR.
The effort faces strong opposition from some Democrats, but hasn't otherwise gained the kind of attention that helped block ANWR legislation in the past.
Opening the so-called "10-02" area of the refuge to drilling requires an act of Congress. Republicans hope to pass major tax legislation using budget reconciliation, which only requires a simple majority vote — a presumably easier task given the party's slim majority.
Members of Alaska's congressional delegation said after the hearing Thursday that they don't think opposition to the ANWR provision will tank the legislation. They cited a prior Senate vote against a Democrat-sponsored amendment to strip the $1 billion instruction from the Senate's budget.
"I look at that and say, 'we may be the least of the problems with the tax package,' " Murkowski said.
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 and 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.
Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan promised too that the delegation would not rest in its ongoing efforts to persuade lawmakers that it is a good idea to drill in the area.
Murkowski is expected to release a bill as early as next week, with intention of passing it out of committee by Nov. 13.
The revenue split between the state and federal government remains undetermined, she and others in the delegation said.
But Alaska Gov. Bill Walker said he'd take what he could get. "Fifty percent of something would be better than 90 percent of nothing," he said, adding that he would defer to those writing the bill. "You won't have any pushback from us," Walker said.
Walker said afterward that the hearing reminded him of "some of the dialogue and discussion before the building of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline."
Murkowski held a three-panel hearing with a long list of mostly Alaskan witnesses. All but the three witnesses who were brought in by Democrats on the panel were supportive of drilling in ANWR, among them Sullivan, Alaska Congressman Don Young, Walker, several Alaska Native representatives and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott.
They argued that drilling technology has advanced to allow a far smaller footprint for farther-reaching wells, that the caribou herd that calves in the region would not be negatively affected and that North Slope drilling has shown the state can drill responsibility.
The delegation has said the legislation will limit drilling to just 2,000 acres within ANWR, though not likely contiguous.
Young aimed to put a fine point on it in his testimony, drawing a blue dot on his nose with a felt-tip pen and declaring it 0.01 percent of his body — the same percentage that 2,000 acres would be within ANWR.
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, then-President Bill Clinton vetoed the bill.
Sullivan noted that the development at Point Thomson "is literally, literally right next to ANWR; it's within a couple miles. It's clearly within the same ecosystem of the 10-02 ecosystem that's the focus of the debate," 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.
Republicans from fossil-fuel-bearing states came to the defense of drilling in ANWR during the hearing.
Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., held up a set of photos given to him by 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-foot-by-8-foot well house, Cassidy said
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., argued that the decision of whether to drill in ANWR shouldn't even be up to the federal government. With the entire congressional delegation, 90 percent of the state Legislature and 70 percent of Alaskans in favor of drilling, Daines 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."
But not all those who were there to speak were in favor of oil.
Samuel Alexander, a tribal member of the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich'in Tribal Government and a Green Beret veteran, 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," because of its use as caribou calving grounds.
Alexander argued that 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 the Gwich'in do not live within the boundaries of the potential drilling area, the "boundaries of Gwich'in nation follows 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.
Alexander echoed the committee's top Democrat, Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell.
"It just ought to be clear … just admit you're going to destroy the Arctic wildlife refuge," Cantwell said at the close of the hearing. "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.
Matthew Rexford, tribal administrator of the Native Village of Kaktovik, disagreed. The community lies within the refuge, and the Kaktovik village corporation owns land in and around ANWR.
Since "the mid-1980s our people have fought to open our homelands to responsible exploration" of oil and gas, Rexford said. He 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.
Matthew Cronin, a 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.