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The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—A refuge no longer?

The provision of the Trump Administration’s “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act” that most concerns scientists, environmentalists and many others is the one that allows for the opening of five million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling. In addition to slashing the corporate tax rate to 21 percent the legislation contains a variety of non-tax provisions including elimination of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. However, the addition of ANWR to the bill is not as unrelated to tax reform as it might initially seem.

The politics of “protection”

In 1980, Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act against the wishes of oil companies interested in drilling in Alaska. The Act protected nearly 70,000 acres of Alaskan wilderness through the establishment of many new national parks and wilderness areas. To appease the Act’s opponents, one part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, “Section 1002,” was left only partially protected to leave open the possibility of oil exploration and drilling in the future.

Since the Act was passed, tensions have repeatedly arisen between conservationists and oil industry proponents. According to NPR’s Scott Detrow, “ANWR has long held an outsized symbolic role in the tug-of-war between environmental protection and the desire to increase domestic oil and gas drilling. In that regard, you could argue, it was the original Keystone XL Pipeline—an issue activists on both sides could rally, fundraise and organize around.”

Alaskan opinions on drilling in the ANWR

Democratic presidents and members of congress have successfully blocked earlier attempts to open Section 1002. Since 1988, members of the Gwich’in tribe have also organized to keep the entire Refuge closed to drilling—their goal being to protect the wild caribou that annually calf there. Many of the Gwich’in plan to actively resist the drilling provision of the new law and may visit Washington D.C. in early 2018.

The Inupiat people, many of whom live and work within ANWR Section 1002, remain divided on the issue of drilling. Some members of the tribe have expressed enthusiasm about the economic advantages and jobs that drilling could bring to the area, while others have voiced concern about the potential for oil-related environmental disasters. Both camps have claimed the support of the majority of the tribe and no official opinion- polling data exists to corroborate either claim.

Dangers to the ecosystem

Thirty-seven leading Alaskan wildlife biologists are campaigning against drilling. They have warned Alaska’s politicians of the significant dangers oil development could pose to the ecosystem. Former Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist John Schoen describes the ANWR as “one the last significant wilderness areas left in the United States, if not North America.” The Refuge is home to over 200 species of birds as well as moose, arctic foxes, wolves, and polar bears, many of which are endangered.

Why was drilling in Section 1002 included in the Tax Bill?

It is widely accepted that the opening of Section 1002 to drilling was included in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act to secure the vote of Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski. Murkowski broke from the majority of the Republican Party when she voted against repealing the Affordable Care Act earlier this year. She followed that by airing hesitations about supporting her party’s tax bill.

Republican senators McCain, Corker, Collins and Lee also suggested that they were uncertain about voting “yes.” Since Republicans have only a 52-48 majority in the Senate, finding a concession that would secure Murkowski’s vote was crucial. Murkowski has long been in favor of drilling in the ANWR. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which Murkowski chairs, soon moved by a vote of 13-10 to add an oil drilling provision to the bill.

The politics of “cost-covering”

After the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation reported that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act would add at least a trillion dollars to the national deficit by 2027, cost-covering measures had to be found to maintain the Bill’s viability. The bill’s advocates claim that projected tax revenue arising from new oil production in ANWR’s Section 1002 will contribute 1.1 billion dollars to the US Treasury in ten years. It’s not clear that this claim is realistic. What is clear, however, is the threat that oil drilling in the ANWR poses to the environment and to the health and safety of local people.


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