Arctic drilling provision in Senate tax bill meets opposition from an unexpected source

A dozen House Republicans have penned a letter raising concerns about allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

(CREDIT: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP)
(CREDIT: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP)

An attempt by Senate Republicans to open up a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling is facing push-back from an unexpected source: House Republicans.

In a letter sent to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), 12 Republican representatives expressed their concerns about opening up part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas exploration, arguing that the refuge “stands as a symbol of our nation’s strong and enduring national legacy.”

“The fate of the Arctic Refuge and its sensitive Coastal Plain lies in the hands of Congress and we must ensure robust debate on this highly-controversial issue,” the letter read.

The letter did not name the tax bill specifically, nor did it state that the legislators would not vote for the bill were it to come to the House. Seven of the representatives who signed the letter voted for House Republicans’ tax bill, which did not have a provision opening up the refuge for drilling, earlier in November. Eight of the representatives who signed the letter are members of the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus.

The letter also noted that opening the refuge up to drilling could trigger a number of lawsuits, which would likely discourage oil and gas companies from pursuing activities in the region. The representatives also argued that the oil and gas resources in the refuge “simply are not necessary for our nation’s independence” and that opening the area to development would imperil a suite of threatened and endangered species, from migratory birds to polar bears.

In a separate statement, Rep. Ryan Costello (R-PA) urged representatives to consider changes to the refuge in a bipartisan fashion, not through tax reform.

“There has been a long history of bipartisan conservation and stewardship efforts to protect the Refuge, and I call upon Congress to maintain these efforts and not include any changes in the tax bill,” Costello said.

As part of the Senate Republican’s sweeping tax reform bill, a portion of the refuge known as the coastal plain would be opened up to drilling to help pay for deficits created by tax cuts elsewhere in the bill. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that opening up the coastal plain to drilling would generate $5 billion over 10 years. It’s unclear how much demand there would be from oil and gas companies to drill in the area, however, with low oil prices making drilling in the sensitive and remote area potentially more expensive than lucrative.

Opening up the refuge for fossil fuel interests has been a major priority of Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) for decades, and she has long championed attempts to open the refuge from her position as chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. In 1995, President Clinton vetoed legislation to open part of the refuge up to drilling. Since then, every effort to open the region to fossil fuel exploration has been defeated in Congress.

This time around, the prospect is different, with Republicans controlling both Houses of Congress and the White House.

But Murkowski’s push to open the refuge to drilling has hit several road bumps related to the reconciliation process, which would allow the bill to move forward with a simple majority vote and without any Democratic support. Earlier this week, the Senate parliamentarian ruled that, as written, the ANWR provision violated a budget rule which holds that the Senate cannot consider extraneous matters as part of a reconciliation bill. Murkowski told Roll Call on Wednesday night that Republicans had crafted a “curative amendment” to ensure that the provision no longer violated that rule.

Some reports suggest that to account for any potential shortfall between the revenue created by opening up the refuge and the $1 billion needed to pay for tax cuts, Republicans have suggested selling more oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Murkowski has previously been opposed to selling oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to make up for deficits, saying in 2015 that the reserve “is not an ATM for new spending.”

The provision hit yet another snag on Thursday night, when the Senate parliamentarian ruled that the exploration allowed by the provision would be subject to environmental reviews by the Interior Department. According to the parliamentarian’s assessment, the provision failed to fully consider requirements under national environmental law. A Democratic aide told Reuters that there was hope that the ruling could slow down or prevent drilling, but Republicans reportedly offered a fix for the problem in an amendment Thursday night. It is unclear whether the proposed amendment would fully resolve the issue.