Drilling threat looms large for Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

December 21, 2017, 12 p.m.
A person looks over the Upper Sheenjek Valley of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from a ledge.
Photo: Steven Chase/USFWS/Getty Images

The prospect of drilling for oil and gas in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) is getting closer to reality with Congress' passage of the Republican tax bill. This would lift a nearly 40-year-old ban on drilling in the refuge.

The tax bill calls for the Department of the Interior to hold a lease sale of up to 800,00 acres of the ANWR within the next decade. Per Congressional Budget Office projections reported by The Hill, the sale of land could generate almost $1.1 billion for the federal government. This revenue is seen as vital in order to pay for the the tax cuts in the Republicans' overhaul of the tax system.

However, it looks like any drilling is unlikely for at least a decade.

“It’s still an open question about whether drilling will ever happen there,” said Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former Interior Department official. “It’s hard to image that drilling will occur in the next 10 years — or ever.”

The delay could be due to "required environmental scrutiny and permit reviews — and then the inevitable lawsuits from local communities and environmental groups opposed to any development in that rugged wilderness," point out Ari Natter and Jennifer A. Dlouhy of Bloomberg.

Plans to drill in the ANWR have been priority for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who leads the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. She contends that the drilling will be boon to Alaska and the U.S., and that it will be done in a way that respects the environment.

"If we move forward with development, we will do it right. We will take care of our wildlife, our lands and our people," she said during a hearing of the committee.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) who is against the drilling, argues that "it turns this coastal plane and wildlife refuge into an oil field."

As Bloomberg points out, interest in drilling in ANWR may be not be particularly high given the costs involved in setting up operations in such a remote area. Still, provided decades-old projections are true, the lure of between 4.3 billion and 11.8 billion barrels of oil may be too much for energy companies to ignore.

Editor's note: This file has been updated since it was published in November 2017.

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