Senate Energy Democrats question timing of ANWR leasing hearing

Democrats on the US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee questioned whether it was appropriate to hold a Nov. 2 hearing on possibly allowing oil and gas leasing on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s Coastal Plain when it was not yet clear why the issue needs to be considered now.

Democrats on the US Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee questioned whether it was appropriate to hold a Nov. 2 hearing on possibly allowing oil and gas leasing on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s Coastal Plain when it was not yet clear why the issue needs to be considered now.

“We’re here today because someone has come up with a tax reform bill that will take a sliver out of ANWR’s caribou migration area to pay for massive proposed cuts,” Ranking Minority Member Maria E. Cantwell (D-Wash.) said. The witness lineup did not include enough opponents, especially the two US senators—Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.)—who have come out most strongly against it, Cantwell said.

Other Democrats on the committee were equally critical. “This hearing is all of a piece to support Republican proposals to cut taxes. We should not be discussing drilling ANWR to pay for tax cuts for the rich,” said Mazie K. Hrono (Hawaii). Al Franken (Minn.) suggested, “If my Republican colleagues think that drilling in this refuge is such a good idea, we should have hearings as a part of the regular order and not try to do this on the cheap.”

Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-Alas.) said she convened the hearing to consider opening the 1.75 million-acre ANWR Coastal Plain for oil and gas leasing to help meet the $1-billion federal budget reconciliation instruction the committee received a week earlier.

“There has been some discussion about whether we can meet that instruction. The answer to that is a simple ‘yes,’” she said.

Other Republicans expressed similar sentiments. “Opening up this small, remote area will provide billions of dollars over the coming decades to chip away at our staggering budget deficit. It also makes sense from an environmental perspective because US energy development takes place under the most rigorous standards in the world,” said Mike Lee (Utah).

Alaskans testify

Alaskans ranging from state government leaders and the two other members of its congressional delegation to Natives and other citizens testified on both sides of the issue.

“I’m one of only two people left in Congress who were here when this battle first was fought 42 years ago,” said Don Young (R), Alaska’s lone US House member. “This is not about the caribou; it’s about economics and the environment. Let’s also talk about national security. If we are to be energy sufficient to control international incidents we face, we need ANWR.”

Gov. Bill Walker (I), meanwhile, said, “Alaska is different. Resource development is in our DNA. It represented 90% of our revenue when we became a state. It represents 70% of it now. The only thing wrong with the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System is that it’s three-quarters empty as it sits next to some of the most prolific petroleum supplies in the world.”

Greg Sheehan, principal deputy director at the US Fish & Wildlife Service, noted that the Trump administration’s proposed fiscal 2018 federal budget recommends leasing within ANWR’s Coastal Plain. “If production is authorized by Congress, the administration believes this will bolster our nation’s energy independence and national security, provide economic opportunity for Alaskans and provide much-needed revenue to both Alaska and the federal government,” he said.

With passage of budget reconciliation provisions in H. Con. Res 71 and its instructions to the committee, the US Department of the Interior stands ready to assist Congress as it considers legislation, consistent with the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, to authorize potential development of resources within the Coastal Plain, Sheehan said.

Support and opposition

Other Alaskans separately expressed either support or opposition for the idea. “We are an island within the largest wildlife refuge in America. Our people have used the resources there for thousands of years,” said Matthew Rexford, tribal administrator in the Native Village of Katkovik. “My fellow Inupiat and I firmly believe in a social license to operate. We have worked for decades with the oil and gas industry to develop standards to develop this resource.”

“The opening of the refuge to oil development and subsequent decline of the Porcupine Caribou herd will limit our access to healthy traditional food and push us into the realm of food insecurity,” said Samuel Alexander, a member of the Gwich’in Tribal Government.

Aaron Schutt, chief executive of Doyon Ltd., one of 13 Native regional corporations established under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, said that technological advances since the Prudhoe Bay oil field was developed in the 1970s have resulted in more recovery from fewer wells with smaller surface impacts on fewer and smaller drilling pads. “Oil development today also causes far less impacts to wildlife and the environment during exploration,” he said.

Richard Glenn, executive vice-president for lands and natural resources at the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., testified that opponents have ignored—and even hijacked—the human rights aspect of the debate. “The simple fact of the matter is that there is but one indigenous population that resides within the Coastal Plain. In fact, there is but one indigenous people within the entire 19.6 million acres of ANWR and they are the Inupiat from Kaktovik,” he said. “The opposition, specifically the environmental lobby, should not be the voice for the future sustainability of Kaktovik; it should be the local people and landowners.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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