Democrats worry Arctic National Wildlife Refuge being lost amid tax debate
Democrats’ fight to keep oil and gas rigs out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is losing ground as the Republican tax plan advances — and it’s almost as if no one has noticed.
The prospect of drilling in the untouched Alaskan tundra is as close to reality as it’s been in more than a decade, with none of the political drama that in past decades turned the refuge’s fate into a top-tier rallying cry for liberals. Legislation to allow drilling in ANWR is quietly hitching a ride on the tax code overhaul that Senate Republicans hope to complete by the end of the week, overshadowed by larger debates on whether the bill is a giveaway to rich people and corporations at the expense of the poor and working class.
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“It’s really not gotten the attention that it should,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, told POLITICO about the ANWR provision. “It’s not just the budget discussion. It’s about everything else that’s going on, the flurry of all sorts of other news.”
Angus King (I-Maine) said Republicans were trying to shield ANWR from opposition by adding it to the larger bill rather than bringing it to the floor separately under rules, which would require it to win support from 60 senators to overcome a filibuster.
“Well, clearly the strategy is to try to get it through as part of this tax reform effort and thereby avoid a direct up-or-down vote,” King said in an interview earlier this month.
The nonstop news cycle and preponderance of other concerns with the tax bill are making it difficult to focus on an issue that normally fires up Democratic voters.
“I do think that putting ANWR in the budget reconciliation package hasn’t drawn as much extremist opposition because it is completely overshadowed by tax reform, which is the center of the package,” said Chris Guith, senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute. “But there are some who aren’t exactly supportive of tax reform that support ANWR, and it’s possible to see ANWR bring a vote or two to help pass tax reform.”
Senate Energy Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) easily advanced legislation through her committee directing the Interior Department to hold two lease sales for drilling in ANWR over the next decade. It would raise $1 billion over that period, according to the Congressional Budget Office, making it eligible for inclusion in a budget reconciliation package that Democrats cannot filibuster.
The reconciliation package also will include Republicans’ tax plan and a repeal of the Obamacare individual mandate. While Murkowski helped scuttle the Obamacare repeal push earlier this year, she says she supports ending the mandate. Murkowski’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
ANWR, a swath of tundra on the northern Alaska coast, is home to polar bears, porcupine caribou and a landscape that hasn’t been touched in thousands of years. Congress designated the 19 million-acre area a wildlife refuge in 1980, but it set aside a 1.5-million-acre parcel known as “10-02” for possible drilling if future lawmakers approved such a plan. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated in 1998 that part of ANWR could hold up to 12 billion barrels of oil, and President Donald Trump and Alaska Republicans have called it essential for their plans for American “energy dominance.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is undecided on the tax bill for a several reasons, said she will support an amendment on the Senate floor to eliminate the ANWR language, but she said success there is not a prerequisite for her to vote for the underlying bill. “No it is not, but I would certainly try to get it out of the package,” Collins told reporters Tuesday. Collins was the only Republican to cross the aisle on an unsuccessful amendment to keep pro-drilling language out of the underlying budget resolution, meaning it is unlikely that she would be able to strip the ANWR provision from a reconciliation bill.
But Democrats say that passing a deficit-increasing tax bill in order to open ANWR would actually harm energy-producing states. That’s because the $1.5 trillion shortfall from the GOP tax cuts would trigger required “pay-as-you-go” cuts to mandatory spending programs, according to a CBO analysis sent to House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).