Delegation revs up for another ANWR fight

Alaska’s congressional delegation is hoping the 13th time will be the lucky one for legislation to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and natural gas development.

That’s because — as he is quick to note — Rep. Don Young has successfully shepherded such bills through the House 12 times before, only to see them falter time and again before becoming law.

Only once has a bill opening ANWR reached a president’s desk, and it was vetoed by President Bill Clinton in 1996.

This go-round, Young introduced the American Energy Independence and Job Creation Act just hours after being sworn in to the new Congress Jan. 3.

Not to be outdone, Alaska’s Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan co-sponsored a similar bill with a slightly more straightforward title Jan. 5: the Alaska Oil and Gas Production Act.

Both pieces of legislation would limit development to no more than 2,000 acres of the refuge’s 1.5 million-acre Coastal Plain, the only portion of the overall 19 million-acre ANWR potentially open to resource development.

With Republicans controlling both the House and the Senate and President-elect Donald Trump’s seemingly oil-friendly administration set to take office, there is renewed hope for “opening” ANWR.

However, the narrow Republican majority in the Senate still leaves the filibuster in play for Senate Democrats who surely won’t concede quietly on such an omnipresent, hot button political issue as drilling in ANWR.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the refuge could hold 10.4 billion barrels of conventional oil and 8.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, putting it on the scale of the nearby Prudhoe Bay, which is the largest conventional oilfield in North America.

Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in a release from the committee’s Republican office that Alaska has proven it can dually develop resources and protect the environment through the 40 years of oil production that has taken place on the North Slope.

She insisted “there is no valid reason” why the Coastal Plain should remain locked up.

Sullivan reiterated Murkowski’s sentiment in the joint release. He also contends ANWR is a touchy political issue only outside of the state that holds the refuge.

“For decades, Alaskans of all political stripes have been pleading with the federal government to let us responsibly develop our resources — including the small (Coastal Plain) area of ANWR. Time and again, our pleas have been denied. This is shameful,” Sullivan said. “Development of this area would be a boost to our state and national economies, providing thousands of good-paying jobs and billions of dollars in federal and state revenue. Because energy can be used as a tool for power and diplomacy, developing Alaska’s abundant reserves would also strengthen our national security.”

Even if the legislation passes, it is generally accepted that exploration and development would take at least 10 years before oil would start to flow from ANWR.

Gov. Bill Walker, who advocates for drilling in the refuge at every opportunity, commended the delegation for continuing to fight for the cause in a release from his office and said the state would do anything in its power to help with infrastructure to access the refuge.

“Alaska has developed the seismic technology needed to focus on the most resource-rich portion of the area, allowing us to limit the footprint of activity in the region. With an oil pipeline that is three-quarters empty and an over $3 billion budget deficit, drilling in the 1002 would fill TAPS and bring much needed revenue to our state coffers,” Walker said.

State of Alaska oil and gas experts told the state Legislature in 2015 that full development of ANWR’s purported hydrocarbon resources could yield $150 billion in revenue to the state over 50 years.

The ANWR Coastal Plain is also known as the “1002 area,” derived from the section of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act that nearly doubled the size of the refuge but also left part of the Coastal Plain area open to study of its petroleum potential.

Seismic mapping data was compiled in the early 1980s; and BP and Chevron partnered to drill an exploration well in 1985 on a portion of the Coastal Plain with Alaska Native subsurface rights, but the results of that well remain confidential.

The 2,000-acre cap on ANWR development in the latest legislation is not new, according to Young’s spokesman Matt Shuckerow.

He said the 2,000-acre limit has been in ANWR bills that have passed the House before and that Young has compared it to the size of Washington Dulles International Airport for those in the nation’s capital unfamiliar with the scope of the proposal.

Young’s ANWR bill would allow for horizontal drilling to maximize recovery with a limited footprint from ever-improving drilling technology.

In October, ConocoPhillips announced a deal with Doyon Drilling Inc. to build an extended reach drilling rig, which the producer says will allow it to cover up to 125 square miles of subsurface area from a 12-acre gravel pad. Currently employed rigs on the Slope have a maximum reach of about 55 square miles, according to ConocoPhillips.

Elwood Brehmer is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce.