Opening ANWR tied to tax reform




The Senate on Thursday adopted a budget resolution for the coming fiscal year that clears the way for language to allow oil and gas activity in the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to be included in a final budget deal.

Passage of the budget resolution is the latest step by Congress toward reforming the nation’s broken tax system, something many Capitol Hill watchers feel Republicans must do if they want to hold onto their majorities in both the Senate and the House in 2018.

To pay for tax reform while also reducing spending by more than $5 trillion, the budget resolution includes reconciliation instructions directing the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to come up with $1 billion over the next decade to reduce the deficit.

The Republican budget resolution for the 2018 fiscal year that began Oct. 1 seeks to achieve a balanced budget by spurring economic growth and cutting trillions of dollars in spending over the coming decade.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi said the resolution provides the “fiscal headroom” needed for the tax-writing committees in the Senate and the House to produce tax reform legislation

Under the reconciliation instructions, any language Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Lisa Murkowski writes to satisfy the $1 billion revenue target could be passed with only 51 votes as part of a final budget deal.

That lower threshold offers the best chance Alaskans have of winning access to the 10.4 billion barrels of oil in ANWR’s coastal plain given Republicans slim majority in the Senate.

During consideration of the budget resolution on the Senate floor, Republicans blocked an attempt by Democrat Sen. Maria Cantwell, the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, to remove the ANWR-related language. Sen. Collins of Maine was the lone Republican to vote in favor of the Cantwell amendment.

Cantwell has long been an outspoken critic of resource development in Alaska. The Washington state Democrat has taken to social media, along with Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and a covey of environmentalist interns dressed in polar bear suits to oppose efforts to allow oil and gas activity on the coastal plain.

Opponents of drilling are calling the budget language a “sneak attack” even through a vast majority of Alaskans, including the Inupiat of the region, have been vocal about supporting development.

Meanwhile, the press continues to post misleading photos of the 1.5-million-acre coastal range as a mountainous area that is home to only polar bears and caribou. The Seattle Times ran this caption under a photo of caribou grazing next to the Brooks Range: “The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop.”

Murkowski said the budget instructions provide an “opportunity to do something constructive for the country.”

“It’s about jobs, and job creation. It’s about wealth and wealth creation,” Murkowski said, calling allowing resource development on the coastal plain the “best option” for raising the needed $1 billion.

Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan called passage of the budget resolution “another key step that we’ve recently accomplished in a decades-long fight to allow Alaskans to produce energy in our state – something that Alaskans, Democrats, Republicans, independents, overwhelmingly support.”

The House could take up the Senate-approved budget blueprint as early as next week, allowing tax reform to advance quickly.

Congressional Republicans have come under increasing pressure from conservatives to get something – almost anything – done. Critics of the Republican leadership, including many of their biggest donors, say failure to pass tax reform could endanger the GOP’s majorities in 2018.

Robert Dillon is the principal of Dillon Strategic Communications in Washington, D.C. and is a longtime Alaskan who served as communications director for the Senate Energy Committee.