WASHINGTON >> Oil and gas drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge moved closer today as a key Senate panel approved a bill to open the remote refuge to energy exploration.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved the drilling measure, 13-10. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia joined 12 Republicans to back the bill.
Opening the remote refuge to oil and gas drilling is a longtime Republican priority that most Democrats fiercely oppose. The 19.6-million acre refuge in northeastern Alaska is one of the most pristine areas in the United States and is home to polar bears, caribou, migratory birds and other wildlife.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said drilling can be done safely with new technology, while ensuring a steady energy supply for West Coast refineries. The measure would generate about $2 billion in royalties over the next decade, Murkowski said, with half the money going to her home state.
Murkowski, who chairs the Senate panel, said opening the refuge to drilling “will help keep energy affordable, saving families and businesses money every time they pay for fuel — essentially an energy tax cut.”
Democrats sharply disagreed.
“What a dramatic change this is,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. “This is destroying a refuge and rolling over environmental laws.”
The wildlife refuge has been the focus of a political fight for nearly four decades. President Bill Clinton vetoed a GOP plan to allow drilling in the refuge in 1995, and Democrats led by Cantwell defeated a similar GOP plan in 2005.
The Trump administration and congressional Republicans are pushing to revive the drilling plan as a way to help pay for proposed tax cuts promised by President Donald Trump. The GOP-approved budget includes $1 billion in revenue from drilling leases over 10 years.
Environmental groups and other critics call those projections wildly optimistic, saying low global oil prices and high exploration costs are likely to limit drilling revenue. Analysts say oil prices must be at least $70 a barrel to justify drilling. A benchmark for crude oil is about $56 a barrel.
The measure sponsored by Murkowski calls for at least two major lease sales over the next decade in at least 400,000 acres each in the refuge’s coastal plain. Surface development would be limited to 2,000 acres.
The bill requires at least a 16.67 percent royalty rate evenly split between the federal government and Alaska.
Murkowski hailed the committee vote as clearing a “significant hurdle” and said she was optimistic the plan could be approved as part of larger tax measure being considered in the House and Senate.