Republicans celebrate opening of ANWR to oil drilling

U.S. President Donald Trump celebrates with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Rep. Don Young and Congressional Republicans after the U.S. Congress passed sweeping tax overhaul legislation on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., on December 20, 2017. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Alaska’s members of Congress celebrated their success Wednesday in opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. The measure passed in the Republican tax bill with a final vote in the House. President Trump also applauded a victory for the Alaska delegation that was 37 years in the making.

Little of the congressional debate was about the refuge. For hours at a time, no one mentioned it. But ANWR got big play on the South Lawn of the White House.

“And ANWR … Oh, congratulations!” President Trump told the Alaska delegation. He invited each of them to take the mic.

“Perseverance overcomes intelligence”

At the presidential podium, Congressman Don Young took the long view.

“This is 37 years I tried to get this passed. It proves one thing: perseverance overcomes intelligence any day of the year,” Young said, to big laughs from the Republican lawmakers arrayed behind him.

Immediately after the vote, Young was happy, but not over-the-moon, greatest-day-of-his 44-years-in-Congress happy. Instead, he seemed measured.

“I think the pipeline was probably a bigger issue, and this is a follow up,” Young said. “This is big because I worked on it ever since we had the Alaska National (Interest) Lands (Conservation) Act (ANILCA).”

Here’s the 20-second version of that law: The 1980 Alaska lands act, established the Arctic Refuge. But lawmakers couldn’t agree on what to do with the far north part, the coastal plain – allow oil development or preserve it for wildlife? So they punted. In section 1002 of the law, Congress said the coastal part would be studied and they’d decide what to do with it later.

“We finally got it done,” Young said.

A long overdue victory

But Young said the ANWR victory is long overdue, because he said he had the support of two of the biggest conservationists in the House back in 1980.

“What bothers me about the campaign against it all these years was that two of the leading environmentalists signed the conference report and set the 1002 areas aside, (Reps.) Mo Udall and John Seiberling,” Young said.

Former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens was killed in an airplane crash in 2010. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The late-Sen. Ted Stevens used to say something similar. Stevens claimed he actually won the fight to open the coastal plain back in 1980, because he got promises from Democratic senators Paul Tsongas and Scoop Jackson.

But whatever commitments the Alaskans got, they didn’t get them in law. Until now.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski said as she left the Capitol in the wee hours Wednesday, after the Senate vote, she called her dad, former Sen. Frank Murkowski.

“He did say ‘You did something I couldn’t do and Ted couldn’t do, so good for you. One of these days you’re going make something of yourself’,” Murkowski said.

Environmentalists vow to continue to fight for the refuge in court, in corporate boardrooms and in Congress.

“A significant tax reduction”
The nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation says the bill will add $1.5 trillion to the deficit, or $1 trillion when you factor in economic growth. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Sen. Dan Sullivan said he’s happy to be part of the team that finally got the refuge drilling bill through Congress. He gave credit to President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, too. Sullivan says, he’s also happy about the tax changes that passed.

“You know, a lot of people are losing or not getting a full Permanent Fund dividend,” Sullivan said. “A lot of them are going to see, particularly the middle class, a tax reduction that fills that hole. Significant.”

The nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation says the bill will add $1.5 trillion to the deficit, or $1 trillion when you factor in economic growth. But Sullivan and Murkowski say they think the hit to the deficit won’t be that large because the economy will grow more than the Joint Committee predicts. And, they say, jobs from development in ANWR will help.

Related stories from around the North:

Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media

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