By GAIL PHILLIPS
Alaskans are on the verge of seeing the oil-rich coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) opened to leasing for the first time — a three-decades-long quest that was, until now, stifled by environmentalists and the blocking-and-tackling tactics of Democrats in Washington, DC.
The compromise tax reform bill agreed to this week by Congress includes language directing the U.S. Department of the Interior to offer two lease sales in the 10-02 area of ANWR within the coming 10 years.
Our own Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young won seats on the bipartisan and bicameral conference committee that successfully merged the competing Senate and House versions of tax reform and repelled attempts to strip out the ANWR provision by opponents of drilling. Sullivan, while not a member of the conference committee, has been an outspoken proponent of permitting oil and gas activity on the coastal plain.
Once the Senate and House sign off on the final tax reform package, there’s little doubt President Trump will sign it when it reaches his desk. The ANWR language is one of the biggest ways lawmakers covered the costs of reducing the corporate tax rate to 21 percent and doubling the standard deduction and child tax credits.
Before the end of this month, the 70 percent of Alaskans who, like myself, support oil and gas activity in ANWR should be able to check off one of the biggest items on our Christmas lists.
This is a big win that will help reinvigorate an economy in its third year of recession. ANWR is that giant box under the tree on Christmas morning, not a stocking stuffer.
We should remember to send a thank you card to Trump. Don, Lisa, Dan and the hundreds of Alaskans have fought long and hard to access our oil reserves under the Arctic coastal plain. The fact that Trump is in the Oval Office has been the deciding factor. Congress approved opening ANWR once before in 1995, but it was vetoed by President Clinton. Elections, as they say, have consequences.
Trump is fast becoming Alaska’s new best friend. Trump and members of his administration, including Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, have thrown their support behind resource development projects here and across the nation as part of the president’s plan to make America energy dominant. In addition to ANWR, the administration has offered unprecedented access to the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and is poised to unveil a proposed new five-year offshore leasing plan that is expected to include acreage in both the Chukchi and Beaufort seas — federal waters the previous administration removed from the current plan.
Opponents of drilling were quick to jump on the recent results of the Interior Department’s lease sale in the NPR-A as evidence of low industry interest in our state. The Bureau of Land Management’s offering of 16,100 square miles in NPR-A received seven bids totaling roughly $1.2 million. But critics ignore a key difference between NPR-A and ANWR. The geology east of Prudhoe Bay is far more favorable to finding another giant conventional oil reservoir than the western half.
The lack of infrastructure in the NPR-A is another reason for the poor results. It wasn’t that long ago that our federal government tried to restrict access to the reserve to helicopter-only, so its little surprise that industry is being cautious and focusing on exploring areas around existing leases.
By contrast, interest in state-owned lands on the North Slope earlier this month brought in a record-breaking $21 million, or an average bid of $110 per acre. The takeaway: interest remains high in Alaska’s resources if the geology is favorable and the access is predictable.
Another essential piece of the puzzle is state tax policy and whether it encourages outside investment. The state has made seven significant changes to the way it taxes the oil industry in the past 12 years. Tax policy and regulatory uncertainty matters a great deal to company executives who must decide how best to invest, especially in remote Alaska where it can take billions of dollars to develop a project.
We are mired in recession and confidence in the local economy slips a little more each quarter. October marked the 25th consecutive month of job losses — the same number of months of job losses that Alaska saw during the recession of the mid-1980s. The difference this time is that we have not yet found the end of the tunnel.
Amid all the doom and gloom, there is hope. Trump is setting the stage for new opportunities that could jump-start our economy. When we look back, opening ANWR will be a lasting symbol of the Trump presidency and, hopefully, the start of a brighter future for Alaska.
If we do our part with policies that encourage investment and give industry the chance to discover new oil, we can put Alaska back on the path to a sustainable economy. We must be resolute in our support for opening ANWR to capitalize on this moment. Such a significant development would not only increase throughput in the pipeline but would also likely lead to projects in other parts of the oil patch, sparking a broader economic recovery with benefits that would be felt across the state.
Gail Phillips served in the Alaska House of Representatives from 1991 to 2001 and was Speaker from 1995 to 1999. She lives in Anchorage.