‘A historic moment’: How ANWR drilling was passed by Congress after decades of effort

Twelve years ago, U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens experienced what he called the saddest day of his life, when he couldn't hammer a measure through the Senate to crack open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, a career goal for the longtime Alaska senator who died in 2010.

On Wednesday, the Alaska delegation got the job done. They sent legislation to President Donald Trump, calling for two lease sales within seven years in a coastal section of the 19-million-acre refuge.

"This is a historic moment for Alaskans," said U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, after the House approved a final tax bill with the ANWR provision.

Young, the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives, fought beside Stevens for more than two decades, trying to get similar measures through both chambers and the White House.

Critical today, Young said, is that the Alaska delegation secured early support from Republican leaders in both chambers. Plus, "kooky" arguments from conservation groups didn't get much traction, he said.

"It was good teamwork," he said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the measure's author and chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said environmental groups used "tired rhetoric" about drilling destroying the refuge and its wildlife. But drilling's footprint is far more compact today, reducing the potential impact on caribou, she said.


"The facts are different than they were 40 years ago," she said.

[The oil industry appears interested in ANWR, but how much money will it generate?]

In 1995, Stevens, Young and former Sen. Frank Murkowski, Lisa Murkowski's father, got an ANWR-drilling measure past both chambers. Democratic President Bill Clinton vetoed it.

President Donald Trump has given wholehearted support, said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska.

On Monday, the president hosted some lawmakers at a screening of "Darkest Hour," the movie about Winston Churchill.

"Are we going to get ANWR done?" Trump asked Sullivan, according to the senator. The president told him it will be good for Alaska and the nation, Sullivan said.

Trump has indicated he will sign the tax bill soon.

Key to the measure's passage is Republican control of the White House and Congress, said Sullivan, Alaska's junior senator elected three years ago.

"Elections have consequences," he said.

[What's in the tax bill, and how it will affect you]

Sullivan, a U.S. Marine Corps Reserves officer and former assistant secretary of state on global energy issues in the George W. Bush administration, said he won a key commitment a year ago after Trump's election. Sullivan told Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that including ANWR in a budget reconciliation process, requiring a simple majority to pass, would be a good idea.

"At that point, Mitch McConnell literally committed to me on this," said Sullivan.

Sullivan said he built a strong relationship with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Vietnam veteran who sometimes travels with Sullivan and took the new senator "under his wing."

McCain has opposed past efforts to allow refuge drilling. McCain, fighting cancer, did not vote early Wednesday morning. But he provided key early votes for the tax bill and ANWR provision, said Sullivan.

McCain told Sullivan he would vote with him on the measure, Sullivan said.

"I think the national security angle was very important (to McCain)," Sullivan said, adding that the refuge's oil can reduce the need for foreign imports.

Formations beneath the coastal plain and nearby state waters might contain 10 billion barrels of oil, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Drilling advocates have said ANWR oil production could provide thousands of jobs nationally and enrich state and federal treasuries.


[Before the Arctic refuge is drilled: Lawsuits, studies and a decade of waiting]

Alaska House Republicans said Wednesday that the state is "open for business like never before."

"This milestone has been a long time coming, and I join Alaskans in celebrating and thanking our dedicated Congressional delegation for getting us here," said state Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage.

"This has been an Alaskan pursuit for half a century, and today, Congress has finally unlocked the promise of utilizing these resources," Gov. Bill Walker said in a statement.

The administration will ensure potential development considers Alaskans' concerns, Walker said.

Conservation groups have vowed to mount opposition, administratively and in courts, as the government launches environmental reviews before leasing occurs.

"This will only heighten our resolve to defend this last great wilderness in Alaska," said Nicole Whittington-Evans, with The Wilderness Society.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. and an occasional Murkowski ally, fought the measure. Speaking with reporters, she said federal officials like her will hold the administration accountable as it presses ahead with environmental reviews.


"We are going to take our case to the American public now to educate them about how the Republicans buried this deeply unpopular decision deep in the bowels of the tax bill," she said.

These days, there are fewer moderate congressional Republicans concerned about environmental stewardship, Cantwell said.

Sullivan said Cantwell and other opponents trotted out stale, "dishonest" arguments people apparently didn't believe. He said he often walked the halls of Congress, carrying printouts and talking with any lawmaker who would listen about improvements in drilling and the measure's security benefits.

"Relentless advocacy," he called it.

[Mystery surrounds only oil well drilled in ANWR]

Sullivan said Wednesday's victory is even more impressive because conservation groups spent large sums advertising to stop the measure. People said big energy companies were behind the provision, but Sullivan said it was just a bunch of Alaskans, including supporters from the North Slope region where the refuge is located.

"This was pure grass roots," Sullivan said.

Brett Hartl, with the Center for Biological Diversity, blamed the tea party movement for replacing many moderate Republicans.

The loss of longtime allies who previously opposed refuge drilling, such as McCain and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, also hurt, he said.

"Was it fatigue? Was it because this is just one of hundreds of horror stories in the tax bill? Was it because the bill was jammed through?"

Both sides agree drilling won't happen soon.

Whittington-Evans speculated Republicans will face political fallout in future elections, potentially leading to new leadership that prevents drilling.


Flipping both chambers and the presidency to Democratic hands won't be easy, Sullivan said. And Alaska has an ally to move the leasing process forward.

Joe Balash, Sullivan's former chief of staff, starts a new job Thursday in the Interior Department. As an assistant secretary under Secretary Ryan Zinke, Balash will oversee administrative steps required for leasing, Sullivan said.

"Like I said, the stars have aligned," Sullivan said.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.