As part of the tax reform bill passed by the Senate, Republicans included an amendment that would open a small part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil exploration.
ANWR comprises nearly 20 million acres of pristine wilderness. The bill authorizes drilling in less than 10% of that area.
“This small package offers a tremendous opportunity for Alaska, for the Gulf Coast, and for all of our nation,” Murkowski said before the vote. “We have authorized responsible energy development in the 1002 area.”
Democrats have long been successful in blocking Republican efforts to allow energy exploration in a 1.5 million acre section of the 19.6 million acres of ANWR known as the “1002 area,” where billions of barrels of crude oil lie beneath the coastal plain.
But this year, Republican control of Congress and the White House spurred Senate Republicans to consider the provision with the tax reform measure under budget reconciliation rules that allow it to avoid a filibuster and pass with a simple majority vote.
Senate Democrats have blasted the process Republicans used to advance the ANWR bill, considering it an unfair way to change the character of a refuge that has been protected since 1960.
Democrats and environmentalists say drilling would harm the ecosystem of what they describe as one of the wildest places left on earth, inhabited by animals such as polar bears, caribou, and arctic foxes.
Opposition to drilling in ANWR has been irrational. Even Democrats have to admit that the tiny fraction of the reserve that will be opened to development will barely impact the ecosystem or any animal, rare or not.
Environmentalists oppose opening ANWR because, well, fossil fuels. When 90% of the wilderness set aside by Congress will be protected and preserved, the argument that oil exploration will destroy the land doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
To get the oil from the refuge to the coast would require construction of a pipeline. But we’ve built pipelines in Alaska before with little or no impact to the ecosystem.
The “best” argument made by the greens for not drilling in ANWR is the impact on one of our largest Caribou herds.
To the west of the Arctic refuge, in the heart of the North Slope oil fields, researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found that, in the 1980s and 1990s, the Central Arctic caribou herd shifted calving areas away from well concentrations. And in longterm studies of the Porcupine herd (named after the Porcupine River in the Yukon and Alaska), Johnson found that even decades after oil development in the Canadian portion of its range, caribou were still avoiding areas within 6 kilometers of roads and wells.
But it is not clear how those behavioral changes might affect population size. “We get into a more nuanced conversation: ‘Does this mean there are going to be a lot fewer caribou, [or] a little fewer?’” Johnson says. “What [development] means for population dynamics is the million-dollar question.”
It sounds eerily like arguments made by global warming advocates.
Animals are resilient and adaptive beasts, or they wouldn’t have survived hundreds of thousands of years. In this case, the caribou shifted their calving grounds a few miles and are apparently thriving.
To be sure, oil from ANWR is years away. But with oil still the lifeblood of our industrialized economy, whenever it starts flowing from Alaska into our cars, it will be welcome.