Yesterday, the decades-old struggle over what is America’s last wilderness area, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), was reopened when Congress voted to open the Refuge to oil drilling, as part of President Trump’s tax plans.
Voting along mainly party lines, the House voted 224-201 to pass the Republicans’ tax overhaul bill, onto which the ANWR drilling provision was bolted.
Earlier in the day, in the early hours of Wednesday morning, the Senate had voted 51-48 in favour of the bill, too.
It only now remains for Trump to sign the legislation, which is a foregone conclusion. As the Hill noted, “Trump boasted Wednesday at a White House meeting with his Cabinet that ANWR drilling is passing under his presidency, after so many political leaders tried unsuccessfully.”
The Hill added that long term oil industry proponents were also ecstatic: “‘After decades and decades in this chamber, we are opening up a small non-wilderness area of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge for responsible development. That is the most ambitious step we have taken in years to secure our own energy future’, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said on the House floor. He added: ‘Some people have been working here since I was in the second grade on this project, pointing to Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who has been trying to open up ANWR to drilling since 1973′”.
Speaking yesterday, Trump said: “We’re going to start drilling in ANWR, one of the largest oil reserves in the world, that for 40 years this country was unable to touch. That by itself would be a massive bill.”
But most commentators believe that drilling will not happen any time soon.
The battle lines are drawn. “Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is nothing more than a Big Oil polar payout,” said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). “We will keep fighting, because the Arctic Refuge should forever be the home of caribou, not crude; bears, not barrels of oil; sandpipers, not pipelines. We will never stop fighting.”
Indeed, Time magazine notes that “It could be a decade or more before any well is drilled, following required environmental scrutiny and permit reviews — and then the inevitable lawsuits from local communities and environmental groups opposed to any development in that rugged wilderness.”
The industry is likely to be challenged in court every step of the way. The delay could be years or even decades, by which time Trump could be long gone. A Republican majority in the Senate and House may be gone too.
Moreover no one really knows how much oil there is. The oil industry and its allies have hyped how much oil is there for years. There could be nearly 12 billion barrels of technically recoverable crude oil in the Refuge. They could be none.
One retired BP manager for exploration says: “I do not believe that there are any adequate, commercially viable reservoirs in the Arctic refuge.” The reality is “there are other less sensitive and less costly places to explore”.
Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former Interior Department official, tells Time magazine: “It’s still an open question about whether drilling will ever happen there. It’s hard to image that drilling will occur in the next 10 years — or ever.”
And the local Indigenous community will fight the plans every step of the way, too. Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee that has opposed oil drilling for decades, adds: “The fight has just begun. We will rise up and protect the Arctic Refuge and the ‘Sacred Place Where Life Begins’ just as our ancestors have before us.”