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Alaska tries again with ANWR drilling

Decades-old debate over whether drilling is wise reopened with Sen. Lisa Murkowski's budget provision

By Daniel J. Graeber
Alaska tries again with ANWR drilling
A budget provision now headed to a full committee reopens the debate about drilling for oil in a section of a wildlife refuge in Alaska. File photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo

Nov. 16 (UPI) -- Opening up an Arctic wildlife refuge to drillers is either a sellout to the oil industry, or a symbolic win for the economy, depending on one's position.

Competing claims were made after the U.S. Senate passed a budget reconciliation proposal to open the 2,000-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge up to oil and gas drillers. The Arctic Slope Regional Corp., a title holder in the North Slope advocating for fossil fuels, pointed to an unspecified poll that showed a "clear majority" of those living in the region want responsible development. For its part, climate group Earthjustice said "a majority of Americans" oppose drilling in ANWR.

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U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Alaskan Republican who introduced the provision, said it would open up only a small non-wilderness part of the region, which she said in a statement would bolster U.S. energy security and "create thousands of good jobs."

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that implementing the legislation would bring about $1.1 billion in royalties to Alaska, while costing about $10 million for environmental reviews and administrative costs through 2022.

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The four-week average for Alaskan crude oil production is 509,000 barrels per day, representing about 5 percent of total crude oil production. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated in a decade-old study that additional production from opening ANWR reaches 780,000 bpd by 2027, but then starts to decline quickly from there.

Alaska's government in 2014 awarded oil and gas drilling licenses after clarifying authority near the border of the wildlife refuge. Some lawmakers objected to the state decision, calling on the Department of Interior to "protect the biological heart of the refuge from oil and gas exploration and drilling."

The refuge is home to threatened polar bears and opponents for decades have questioned whether drilling would be worth the environmental risk.

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When U.S. President Barack Obama announced plans in 2015 to set aside 12 million of the 19 million acres in the refuge, Murkowski said it was clear the White House "does not care about us."

The U.S. House of Representatives last week passed the so-called SECURE American Energy Act, H.R. 4239, which would expand access to drilling for oil and gas offshore, including Alaska, and offer some support for wind energy development. The SECURE Act would also expand revenue-sharing to Alaska and Atlantic states.

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Murkowski's legislation now makes its way to the full Budget Committee.

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