Plan to open ANWR to drilling moves forward after divisive vote

A porcupine caribou herd grazes in the 1002 Area. Conservation groups fear drilling will disturb their breeding grounds (Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service)
Rollback of conservation status for a portion of huge Alaska wildlife area moves forward after key Senate vote.


Rollback of conservation status for a portion of huge Alaska wildlife area moves forward after key Senate vote.

Key legislation that would open a swath of Alaska’s northern coast to oil drilling has advanced in the US Congress after members of the Senate Energy Committee on Wednesday voted to approve a measure that could earn the state and federal governments in excess of $1 billion each in the next decade.

Alaska National Wildlife Refuge

The measure was put forward last week by Lisa Murkowski, a Republican senator from Alaska who chairs the committee. It passed by a vote of 13-10 along party lines, with just one Democratic senator voting in favour of opening an portion of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge known as the 1002 Area.

The measure now moves to the Senate’s budget committee. If passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by the president, the federal government would be required to hold two lease sales covering 77,000 square kilometres by 2025.

As much oil as Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay

The economic payout of opening 1002 Area could be huge: a 2005 study by the US Geological Survey study suggested it could contain as much oil as Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay, a massive oil-producing area further to the west that long sustained the state’s economy, but in recent years has declined.

Total revenue from the lease sale is projected to be $2 billion, which would be split between the Alaskan and federal governments. However, Ms Murkowski suggested that the amount of revenue could be “tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars” over the course of several decades.

Keep energy affordable

“Opening a small part of the non-wilderness 1002 Area for responsible energy development will create thousands of good jobs, keep energy affordable for families and businesses, ensure a steady long-term supply of American energy, generate new wealth, reduce the federal deficit and strengthen our national security,” she said in a statement after the measure passed.

Despite being a part of ANWR, a 1980 law declared the 1002 Area ‘non-wilderness’, making it possible for Congress to allow drilling there. Proponents have come close to doing that before, most notably in 1995, when then-Democratic president Bill Clinton vetoed a bill passed by the Republican Congress that would have allowed drilling.

This time around, with a Republican in the White House and a cabinet member in the form of Ryan Zinke, the interior secretary, who has called for the expansion of oil exploration, a bill is almost certain to become law.

From 4.3 billion barrels to 11.8 billion barrels

Questions about the attractiveness of the 1002 area remain, however. The data the USGS based its estimate on, for example, has been criticised for being dated. Likewise, the estimates of the amount of oil that could be recovered from the 1002 Area vary considerably. Projections range from 4.3 billion barrels to 11.8 billion barrels.

Drilling in the region is also costly, and uncertainty about whether the price of oil will rise to a level that would make drilling profitable, as well as the continued strength of fracking may undermine the economic arguments.

Threatens a wide range of animals

Conservation groups railed against the measure’s approval, saying it puts economic needs ahead of the environment and that industrial activity threatens a wide range of animals, from migratory birds to Porcupine caribou, which calve in the area.

Ms Murkowski shrugged off arguments against opening the 1002 Area, noting that its size makes it a more stable source of energy than short-lived fracking wells, while new technology would make drilling more effective and less invasive, effectively reducing the amount of space required for development to eight square kilometres.

“We will not sacrifice wildlife for the sake of development. There is no question that development and environmental protection can and do exist in Alaska,” she said.