— -- The final version of the Republican tax bill, which passed in Congress midday Wednesday, included a major blow to environmentalists.
In addition to slashing the corporate tax rate and nixing the mandate that Americans have health insurance, the tax legislation contained language requiring the federal government to open up and lease part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to private companies for oil and gas drilling.
That portion of the bill was sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who has fought for expanded drilling in her home state for years. It states that Secretary of the Interior must lease at least two pieces of land in the next ten years, each at least 400,000 acres area-wide. The bill also directs the Interior Secretary to issue "any rights-of-way or easements across the Coastal Plain for exploration, development, production, or transportation" and authorizes the use of 2,000 acres of federal land in the Coastal Plain for production and support facilities, including airstrips
"This is a major victory for Alaska that will help us fulfill the promises of our statehood and give us renewed hope for growth and prosperity," Murkowski said in a press release Wednesday. She said the deal would yield considerable revenue for the state's coffers.
The Congressional Budget Office projects the federal government could make about $1 billion from leases and sales in the area over the next decade, as would Alaska, which splits the profits with the federal government, according to the legislation.
Her Democratic counterpart on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), accused Republicans of adding the controversial provisions just to secure a few additional votes, like Murkowski’s, for their tax bill and argued from an energy production standpoint the timing was actually strange as the price of oil and interest from developers has been relatively low.
“While they may have had the votes last night to pass this legislation, they certainly don’t have the consciousness of America,” Cantwell said on a call with reporters Wednesday. “We are going to take our case to the American public now,” Cantwell went on, vowing to fight the law in court, future legislation, and elections down the road.
“As one of the key truly, truly unique wild places left on the planet it makes no sense for the United States of America to abdicate their environmental stewardship,” Cantwell said.
The 19.6-million-acre refuge is currently the home and breeding ground for hundreds of thousands of caribou, some of the largest populations of polar bears in the world and millions of migratory birds. Scientists credit the creation of the refuge and protection of the land with the resurgence of the Porcupine Caribou Herd specifically.
“I do find it ironic that at a time when American children across the country are singing about reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh, we are voting over destroying the most important caribou habitat, which are reindeer, in the entire country,” Collin O’Mara, President and CEO of National Wildlife Federation, said Wednesday, echoing Cantwell’s concern about the rareness and fragility of the land.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been a point of contention and political tug-of-war since its creation. In 1960, Congress first established the Arctic National Wildlife Range to preserve the unmatched wildlife and wilderness of the area. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act to solidify the area’s protective status.
For years, Republicans tried to chip away at the public land. Their efforts stalled significantly though in the wake of the in 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off the Alaskan coast. The spill, the largest in the country until the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, sent approximately 11 million gallons of oil flooding into pristine water and impacted nearly 1,000 miles of coastline.
Sam Alexander a board member of Gwich’in international tribal council said politicians were blind to the “true value” of the area. The Gwich’in people live in the northern parts of Alaska and Canada. “Our congressional leadership is blind to the fact that the true value of the coastal plain is its place as America’s last, unspoiled wilderness,” Alexander told reporters on a call with environmentalists Wednesday.
In 1995, Republicans included a provision to open the area for oil exploration in a budget bill, but President Bill Clinton vetoed the legislation.
The Congressional Budget Office projects the federal government could make about $1 billion in revenue from leases and sales in the area over the next decade if it splits profits with the state of Alaska as outlined in the legislation.
“This is indicative of a much bigger agenda by this congress, led by Republicans, and this president to sell out our public lands to the highest bidder for short term gain,” Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society, told reporters Wednesday, citing the Interior Department’s recent decision to change to the size and status of public lands and monuments in Utah. “This is not an isolated story. We know it is widely unpopular with the American people and we think we will prevail in the long run once the public really understands what is being done here.”