Drilling for Tax Cuts: The Devastating Alaska Provision

Most Americans, including many congressional Republicans, are strongly opposed to oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. So why is it attached to the tax bill?

December 08, 2017
A scene from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Dusty Vaughn/USFWS

Up until its wee-hours passage last Saturday morning, the tax bill wasn’t a sure thing in the U.S. Senate. Republican leaders, still feeling bruised from their inability to kill Obamacare despite controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress, had already taken to describing tax reform as a must-win and predicting unfettered catastrophe for their party should it collapse at the eleventh hour for lack of votes. As the leadership canvassed GOP senators throughout the process to make sure they were still on board, all eyes—once the yea vote of the unpredictably mavericky John McCain seemed secure—were on one person: Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski.

Just a few days before Thanksgiving, Murkowski—who, along with McCain, had helped sink her party’s plans to destroy the Affordable Care Act—was still publicly waffling in a way that was making some Republicans nervous. Although she had previously voiced support for repealing Obamacare’s individual mandate, she initially expressed wariness about the manner in which the GOP was attempting to insert it into the tax bill. “Both pieces of those are complicated, and together they become more complicated,” she said.

But in the end, most analysts believed that she would be able to smooth over any differences with her colleagues and find a way to work with them. That’s because Murkowski, who chairs the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, had already seen to it that the tax bill contained a special provision to allow oil and gas drilling in the 2,300-square-mile coastal plain section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And there was no way she was going to throw away that opportunity.

Opening up the coastal plain to drillers has long been a goal of representatives of the 49th state. Congress set this parcel aside from the rest of the refuge back in 1980, leaving it―and only it―open to the possibility of exploration by developers. Ever since then, Alaska’s public officials, including Murkowski’s father, a former Alaska senator and governor, have been itching to let oil and gas companies set up shop there and to start reaping the benefits of all those expensive leases and corporate profits. All they needed was legislative and presidential approval. Over the decades, with the help of congressional Republicans, they’ve come close to getting their wish on several occasions. But something—Democratic filibusters, Bill Clinton’s veto pen, the oil industry’s sullied reputation after the Exxon Valdez spill—always seemed to get in the way.

Now, thanks in large part to Murkowski’s role in adding a tiny but crucial bit of language to the Senate tax bill, it must appear to her and her fellow Alaskan public officials as if they’re closer than ever to realizing their goal. But with that proximity has come renewed scrutiny of the wisdom and necessity of drilling in the refuge. And with that scrutiny have come concern and condemnation—and not just from environmentalists. As it turns out, some of the loudest voices opposing drilling in the refuge belong to Murkowski’s Alaska constituents, and even some of her fellow Republicans.

As Senate GOP leaders were twisting arms and counting votes last week, they received a pair of letters urging them to remove Murkowski’s provision from the tax bill. The first of them was signed by seven GOP stalwarts—including two former EPA administrators who served under Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush—and averred that “[t]here is simply no need to reverse protections for the only area of America’s entire Arctic coastline legally off-limits to oil exploration, especially given our urgent need to address impacts from a changing climate and to diversify our energy resources.” Two days later, another letter arrived, this one signed by a dozen Republicans currently serving in Congress. Among their arguments for pulling the provision was that drilling on the coastal plain was in no way worth the environmental risks that it carried: “The resources beneath the Coastal Plain simply are not necessary for our nation's energy independence. If proven, the estimated reserves in this region would represent a small percentage of the amount of oil produced worldwide.”

Within the state of Alaska, some communities whose cultures and livelihoods are tied to the ecological health of the coastal plain have expressed their grave concern that whatever short-term economic gains there are to be had from its exploration and development will be negated by the disruption of the area’s fragile ecosystem. One indigenous group, the Gwich’in, have had a deep spiritual connection to the coastal plain’s herd of porcupine caribou for more than 20,000 years. The appearance of rig teams and drilling infrastructure on their sacred land—the caribou’s calving ground—would be more than insulting; it would constitute a direct threat to a way of life that dates back to well before the Neolithic era. An oil spill on that same land could prove physically devastating to this culture, one of the oldest extant cultures on earth.

Earlier this week, the Climate Change Communication program sponsored by Yale University released the results of a survey showing that a vast majority of Americans find the idea of drilling on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge deeply unsettling. According to this polling, 70 percent of Americans oppose oil and gas development there. Interestingly, despite the GOP’s official endorsement of the idea as evidenced by their tax bill, the survey indicates that a mere 18 percent of self-identified Republican voters strongly support it.

Murkowski’s colleagues desperately needed her vote on their tax bill, so in their desperation they gave her what she wanted: legislative language opening the door for oil and gas drilling on an ecologically vulnerable, culturally sensitive, environmentally pristine landscape. A number of her fellow Republicans are opposed. Indigenous communities inside her home state are aghast. An overwhelming majority of Americans are against the idea. So why is the provision still there?

The bill has yet to go through reconciliation, where all kinds of revisions await. Just this Wednesday, it was announced that Murkowski herself would be seated on the powerful bicameral conference committee tasked with ushering the bill through this process. Were she to undergo a last-minute change of heart, pulling the provision—and preserving the coastal plain—wouldn’t be that difficult. And if, for some reason, doing so were to jeopardize the passage of a bill that’s estimated to raise the deficit by nearly $1.5 trillion so that billionaires and large corporations can reduce their tax burdens . . . well, let’s just say that some of us would be OK with that.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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