WASHINGTON — It took roughly four decades for Alaska's congressional delegation to pass a law that would allow drilling in part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), but it will likely be yet another decade before there's any actual drilling.
The three members of Alaska's congressional delegation — Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young — all said this week that actual drilling, and the economic boom that could come with it, is a long way away. But they are pushing for focused work from Alaskans in the Trump administration now in hopes getting projects started.
"It's interesting… more often than not I heard people say, 'I never thought it was going to happen in my lifetime,'" Murkowski said of her recent trips back to the state. "But I remind people that just because we have the congressional permission" doesn't mean production is imminent, she said.
"And for those who are saying, 'OK, now the state is sitting just fine because we've got ANWR,' well, that belies the reality… (It) is going to be another decade before we see production, and perhaps even a little bit longer," she said.
In December, President Donald Trump signed tax legislation into law that opened a coastal section of the 19-million-acre refuge area to drilling. Congress ordered the administration to hold two lease sales within seven years in the so-called "10-02" area.
Young, the senators and their predecessors have been trying to get Congress to pass — and the president to sign — this or similar legislation for 40 years.
"I always knew that ANWR would be open if we got the right stars lined up," Young said. The delegation agreed to push for opening ANWR on the tax bill, he said, "because, very frankly, we figured the tax bill would pass." Getting the measure through the Senate on its own would have been too tall an order, he said.
"What we're working on now is… to get the (Environmental Protection Agency) and the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers and Fish and Wildlife all in the same room and so they all give the same answer, not prolong it or slow-walk it," Young said.
The delegation wants to see quick action because a future administration could easily slow down the process, Young said.
But for now, agency officials are reporting to the delegation, he said. The message they're delivering is, "You're going to do it together and you're going to do it on time," Young said.
The current goal for the delegation and the Interior Department is to conduct the first lease sale in the ANWR coastal area within four years, Murkowski said. To that end, the Interior Department is working backward from that deadline to establish a timeline.
This week, the Interior Department's Royalty Policy Committee met in Houston and approved a recommendation from its working group to hold a lease sale "as soon as practicable and ahead of the statutorily required timeline."
"A prompt first lease sale will allow industry to more quickly initiate exploration and potentially field development, which in turn will more quickly realize federal royalty production and return to the federal treasury," the committee said.
Both Murkowski and Sullivan said this week that they had meetings scheduled with Joe Balash, the Interior Department's assistant secretary of land and minerals management. Balash came to the job straight from Sullivan's office, where he was chief of staff. Before that, he led the Department of Natural Resources in Alaska.
In the coming weeks, Balash and Interior Department Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt will be in Alaska, according to Murkowski. She called the trip "really significant."
And she touted her role as chair of the appropriations subcommittee that handles the Interior Department's budget. If moving environmental reviews forward requires additional funding, "because you have to put more people in place for review," Murkowski said she can make that happen.
For now, questions remain about how to make drilling in ANWR work, Young said. For one, there isn't as much easily accessible water as there is in Prudhoe Bay, and plenty of water is necessary to build an ice road, as to avoid damaging the tundra.
More seismic research is needed, Murkowski said, noting that the state may pitch in on the project. Gov. Bill Walker asked the Legislature for $10 million to help pay for seismic testing to help determine just how much oil is in the region and where.
"I don't know if that's an idea that's going to move forward. But again, recognizing that there is a lot that is preliminary and needs to be put in place, that's what we're doing now," Murkowski said.