POLITICS

Trump's choices of Cabinet renew debate over opening Alaska's Arctic refuge to oil drilling

Sea ice floats within the 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in this undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska Image Library.

Sea ice floats within the 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in this undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska Image Library.  (Reuters)

Oil companies who have long coveted an environmentally sensitive Alaskan refuge may be on the verge of tapping its huge reserves under a Donald Trump administration that has signaled its support for fossil fuels.

Trump’s nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state -- along with rumors that he will choose Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke as Interior Secretary -- have buoyed the hopes of many energy industry insiders and Alaskan lawmakers who have seen attempts to drill the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge thwarted during President Obama’s time in office.

“This is exactly the time we need to start developing the area,” Nick Loris, an energy expert at the Washington D.C.-based conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, told FoxNews.com. “It will take more of a hurdle given what Obama has done, but it can be undone.”

At the heart of the battle over ANWR – a 19 million-acre tract of land flanked by the Brooks Range to the south, the Beaufort Sea to the north and Canada’s Yukon province to the east – is a section of the refuge called the coastal plain, or section 1002.

ANWR Facts

  • Refuge was created in 1980 under Carter Adminstration
  • Encompasses 19 million acres along Alaska's northesatern border with Canada
  • Home to polar bears, porcupine caribou, gray wolves and over 200 species of migratory birds
  • There are an estimated 7.7 billion barrels of oil under ANWR's coastal plain

On one side of the debate: Alaska’s Republican lawmakers and a fossil fuel industry that sees the estimated 7.7 billion barrels of oil under the coastal plain a boon to the state’s flagging economy that has suffered from low oil prices on the global market and a decline in crude flowing through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

On the other side: Environmental groups and the indigenous Gwich'in people, who consider the coastal plain sacred land and say oil drilling would ruin a fragile habitat for gray wolves, polar bears, porcupine caribou and more than 200 species of migratory birds.

“ANWR is a national treasure and an amazing piece of land,” Nicole Whittington-Evans, the Wilderness Society’s Alaska regional director, told FoxNews.com. “It is not a place where oil and gas development should be allowed.”

The refuge was created in 1980 as part of comprehensive public-lands legislation signed into law by President Jimmy Carter that put more than 100 million federal acres in Alaska under conservation protection. Lawmakers at the time recognized the potential for oil drilling on the coastal plain but they prohibited leasing or other development on the land unless authorized by a future Congress.

That is basically where the issue has stood for the past 36 years as Alaskan lawmakers’ and oil industry executives’ advances have been thwarted in Congress.

In 1995, the Alaskan delegation inserted a provision opening ANWR to development in a budget reconciliation bill, but the bill was vetoed by President Bill Clinton. In 2005, despite having the Senate, House and White House all in Republican hands, a push to open ANWR was also unsuccessful as a number of moderate Republicans voted against it.

Recently – as global oil prices have dropped to just more than $50 per barrel – oil companies have backed away from pushing to open ANWR and instead focused on their existing projects. Royal Dutch Shell in 2015 indefinitely canceled plans to drill in the Arctic and an oil industry consortium that included Exxon Mobil and BP recently suspended its arctic exploration program in the Beaufort Sea.

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In the same year, the Obama administration made an official recommendation to Congress to designate 12.3 million acres of ANWR – including the coastal plain – as wilderness, the highest level of protection available to public lands and a move, that if approved by Congress, would be the largest ever wilderness designation since Congress passed the Wilderness Act in 1964.

Parts of ANWR are already designated as wilderness, but not the coastal plain and Obama’s recommendation would prevent any road or industrial development on the land.

“Designating vast areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as Wilderness reflects the significance this landscape holds for America and its wildlife,” outgoing Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement. “Just like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of our nation's crown jewels and we have an obligation to preserve this spectacular place for generations to come.”

The Republican-controlled Congress has so far ignored the president’s recommendation and the future of the refuge looks to be decided under the Trump administration – an idea that is very appealing to those in the Alaska congressional delegation.

“We have been working to advance ANWR for decades now. And we need to have the support of the Congress," Murkowski told the Alaska Dispatch News on election night. "But if the numbers continue for us with the Senate and you have a president who has expressed support, I will be chairing the energy committee again, and I am going to look to push that early on.”

A Trump administration and a Republican-held Congress, however, doesn’t mean that oil drilling in ANWR is a guarantee. GOP senators need 60 votes to get closure on any legislation allowing drilling in ANWR and to prevent a Democratic filibuster, but there are only 52 Republicans in the Senate.

“To open up ANWR you need to get 60 votes, so the question is ‘can you get eight Democrats to vote for it?’” Robert McNally, the president of the Rapidan Group, an energy consulting firm, and former official in the George W. Bush administration, told FoxNews.com.

McNally added: “There may be a push to do it, but it might be better to wait for 2018 and see if they can get a filibuster-proof Congress.”

The other option for Alaskan lawmakers – and a scenario that increasingly concerns environmental groups – is repeating their move in 1995 and attaching an ANWR provision to a budget reconciliation bill. This only requires 51 votes, cannot be filibustered and, unlike in 1995, won’t face the threat of a veto by a Democratic president.

“Republicans may try to put drilling in the Arctic into the budget reconciliation bill,” Athan Manuel, the director of the land protection program at the Sierra Club, told FoxNews.com. “So we have our work cut out for us to win over some Republicans.”

In his remaining time in office, Obama does have one card up his sleeve that could permanently halt any efforts to open ANWR to oil drilling – declare the region a national monument.

The 1906 Antiquities Act allows presidents to designate monuments as a way to protect natural, cultural or scientific features on certain pieces of land. Since its enactment, 15 presidents have designated more than 150 monuments with Obama using the law 25 times – most recently to expand the Papahānaumokuākea Marine Monument in Hawaii.

There has been little indication, however, that Obama plans to declare ANWR a monument in his final weeks in office and environmental groups say they are gearing up for a clash with the incoming administration.

“We’ve pushed the Obama administration to name the coastal area a national monument, but that probably won’t happen,” Manuel said. “So we’re bracing for a fight.”