Congressional Democrats remount effort to block drilling in ANWR

By Erica Martinson, Alaska Dispatch News - April 6, 2017
The Alaska National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain in summer. (Loren Holmes / ADN)
The Alaska National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain in summer. (Loren Holmes / ADN archive)

WASHINGTON — Democratic lawmakers in Congress made their opposition clear to any potential drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with a bill introduced this week.

But Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who heads the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said there was no chance of it advancing.

The movement marks some of the first this year over the long-simmering efforts by Alaska lawmakers to open ANWR to drilling. By law, no drilling can occur there without congressional consent. Such a vote has evaded Alaska’s grasp for three decades, but supporters expressed new hope when Republicans took the House, Senate and White House in November’s elections.

A group of mostly Democratic lawmakers introduced bills in the House and Senate this week to designate the coastal plain of ANWR as a wilderness area, permanently blocked off to oil and gas production. The area is managed as wilderness by the federal government, but has not been designated as such by Congress.

In 1980, Congress set aside an area of the coastal plain for possible oil and gas production, but only with approval from Congress, which has proven elusive despite repeated efforts from Alaska’s senators over the years. The area is estimated to hold up to 16 billion barrels of oil, according to U.S. Geological Survey projections.

The Senate bill, with 40 co-sponsors, was led by Democrats Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Michael Bennet of Colorado. In the House, a bipartisan group included Democrats from California and Arizona, and Republicans Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania and Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey.

In Alaska, the Gwich’in Steering Committee has long sought help from non-Alaska lawmakers to block off the so-called “10-02” portion of ANWR to drilling.

“The very existence and identity of the Gwich’in are under threat,” said Bernadette Demientieff, the group’s executive director, in a statement. “We want to continue to live our cultural and traditional life with the Porcupine Caribou Herd. Any development to the Refuge or the Coastal Plain would be a human rights violation. Our identity is not negotiable.”

The bills also drew the support of a broad number of environmental and conservation groups, in Alaska and nationally.

But Murkowski was not interested.

“This bill was dead before it got introduced,” she said.