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Parts of Alaska wilderness open to oil and gas drilling with tax overhaul

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski in July voted against an Obamacare repeal amid threats to block plans for more oil development in Alaska if she didn't stay on her side of the aisle.

By Daniel J. Graeber
Parts of Alaska wilderness open to oil and gas drilling with tax overhaul
"At long last," part of an Alaskan refuge area is open to oil and gas drillers with a vote in favor of the U.S. tax overhaul, Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan said. File photo by Mike Theiler/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 20 (UPI) -- At long last, a senator said the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is open to responsible energy development, though advocates said the move is "unconscionable."

U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, both Republicans, voted in favor of the extensive overhaul to the U.S. tax code. The measure passed out of the Senate along party lines and includes language inserted by Murkowski that opens parts of the wildlife refuge in Alaska to oil and gas drilling.

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After casting his vote Tuesday, Sullivan said the so-called section 1002 Area of ANWR is open to drillers "at long last." An effort lasting more than a decade has ended, he said, and "takes us one step closer to this momentous accomplishment for Alaska and the nation."

Murkowski's office said the section the 1002 Area is a non-wilderness portion of the refuge and her provision carved out only a "small portion" of the acreage for oil and gas drilling.

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A study from the U.S. Geological Survey found most of the oil was in the western section of the 1002 Area and recovery depends on the price of oil. A USGS fact sheet found as much of 10.4 billion barrels of oil would be considered commercial with oil priced at $30 per barrel, about half the current market price.

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The tax bill outlines two lease sales over the next 10 years. Trip Van Noppen, the president of advocacy group Earthjustice, said the Republican-led effort takes aim at the "biological heart" of the region.

"A vote for this tax bill was an unconscionable vote for oil leasing in the Arctic Refuge," he said in a statement. "Those members of Congress who allowed this fast-track tax bill, drafted behind closed doors and passed through a convoluted scheme to avoid full and open debate, have just failed the American people."

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Members of the indigenous communities in Alaska were joined by Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., last week in voicing opposition to the effort to drill in ANWR. No Democrat voted in favor of the tax bill.

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that implementing a previous version of the tax legislation would bring about $1.1 billion in royalties to Alaska, while costing about $10 million for environmental reviews and administrative costs through 2022. Alaska's government already awarded oil and gas drilling licenses after clarifying authority near the border of the wildlife refuge three years ago.

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Murkowski in July joined two other Republican leaders in voting against the so-called "skinny repeal" of the Affordable Care Act, the signature healthcare policy of former President Barack Obama, upending the effort.

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Ahead of that vote, U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spoke with Murkowski and Sullivan, who voted in favor of the Obamacare repeal, and threatened to block plans for more oil development in Alaska if they didn't stay on their side of the aisle in the repeal, various media outlets reported.

The Interior Department put 900 tracts covering 16,100 square miles in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska on the auction block in early December. The auction garnered bids for only seven of those tracts.

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