WASHINGTON D.C. (KTUU) - President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act on Dec. 2, 1980. The bill preserved millions of acres of Alaskan wilderness and set aside a coastal plain in one national wildlife refuge for resource development, per Congressional approval.
Now, 37-years later to the day, Alaska woke up to the possibility that drilling would begin in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), decades after it was first promised.The Republican tax reform bill that passed the Senate contained a provision written by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) “that opens a small portion of the non-wilderness 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for responsible energy development.”
Not everyone in Congress or Alaska is happy with the move to drill, with many people opposing it from an environmental standpoint and for the method in which the legislation was passed. Shortly before the final vote an amendment was added by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D–Washington) that would have blocked drilling in the 1002 Area. The amendment needed 60-votes, it failed in a vote of 52-48.
With the successful final vote, Murkowski said “tonight is a critical milestone in our efforts to secure Alaska’s future.” She highlighted drilling in the 1002 Area as a way to create jobs in Alaska: “I thank all of the Senators who spent time learning about our opportunities and needs, and who joined us tonight in voting for Alaska. We are grateful for their support and eager to take the next steps for this pro-jobs, pro-growth, and pro-energy legislation,” said Murkowski.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) echoed Murkowski’s statement speaking about unlocking the energy resources in the 1002 Area. “I was proud to cast a vote to reform our nation’s outdated tax system, and to unleash America’s energy potential by opening up the 1002 area of ANWR for energy production,” Senator Sullivan said.
Meanwhile, Rep. Young (R-Alaska) and Alaska Gov. Bill Walker both applauded the U.S. Senate for passing the legislation that moves drilling in the 1002 Area one-step closer.
Kara Moriarty, a spokesperson with the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, welcomed “the leadership and diligence of Senators Murkowski and Sullivan and Congressman Young.” She said that support for drilling in ANWR has had widespread support across Alaska.
"The U.S. Senate’s decision to include 2 leases sales in the coastal plain of ANWR in its tax reform bill is welcome news for the 70 percent of Alaskans who have supported development in the area specifically set aside for oil and gas, the ‘1002 area’, for decades,” said Moriarty.
However, drilling in the 1002 Area of ANWR isn’t yet assured.
Because the House and Senate tax reform bills are different, a Conference Committee will now form to reconcile the two differences so a single bill can be passed by both houses.
A potentially tricky road that could be made more difficult with 12 Republican lawmakers publicly opposing drilling in the 1002 Area. In a letter to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) sent Nov. 30, legislators wrote about the “pristine” national wilderness in ANWR and the threat drilling could pose to “this fragile, critically important landscape.”
A viewpoint shared by Nicole Whittington-Evans, the Alaska Regional Director at the Wilderness Society: “Oil and gas drilling would have devastating impacts to this pristine and fragile ecosystem, caused by the massive infrastructure needed to extract and transport oil. Drilling the Arctic is risky, would fragment vital habitat and chronic spills of oil and other toxic substances onto the fragile tundra would forever scar this now pristine landscape and disrupt its wildlife.”
In a phone conversation with Channel 2 News, Whittington-Evans said that drilling in the North Slope had expanded as east and west from the original planned footprint. Something she believes would be repeated in ANWR.
She also questioned the legislative process being enacted that saw resource development included in a different bill. “Sacrificing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has no place in a tax bill and it’s outrageous that some politicians will do anything to sneak this sell-out past the American people,” said Whittington-Evans.
Murkowski challenged that perspective, saying the ANWR provisions had been discussed transparently.
At this year's Alaska Federation of Natives Conference a protest was held to oppose arctic drilling. At the time, Bernadette Demientieff, the Executive Director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, said the protesters were worried about the threat arctic drilling would have to the Porcupine caribou herd. Demientieff also spoke about the danger she believed resource development posed to Alaska Native cultures.
“We're here to speak for the sacred lands in Alaska, whether it’s the north, the south, we're dealing with a great amount of changes right now and people are choosing to ignore that. We're the ones who are going to have to live with the aftermath,” said Demientieff.