FILE - In this undated file photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, caribou from the Porcupine Caribou Herd migrate onto the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP, File)

House votes to bar Arctic drilling; Senate action unlikely

September 12, 2019 - 4:19 pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Democratic-controlled House on Thursday voted to reinstate a decades-long ban on oil and gas drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — a largely symbolic move aimed at reversing a plan by President Donald Trump to drill in the pristine refuge.

The 225-193 vote comes as the Trump administration has begun planning to sell oil and gas leases in the remote refuge, home to polar bears, caribou, migratory birds and other species.

The drilling was authorized under a 2017 tax cut approved by the Republican-controlled Congress, an action the House vote attempts to undo. The bill now goes to the GOP-controlled Senate, where action is unlikely. Trump has vowed to veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

Later Wednesday, the Interior Department released its final environmental impact statement on drilling in the refuge, with its preferred plan to offer the entire coastal plain for lease.

Officials said during a teleconference with reporters that nearly 1.6 million acres would be offered for lease under this alternative. It still needs final approval, but that appears to be a formality. The goal is to hold a lease sale before the end of the year, officials said.

In Congress, the bill's Democratic sponsor, Rep. Jared Huffman of California, said there are "some places too wild, too important, too special to be spoiled by oil and gas development. The Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain is one of those special places."

But Republicans, including all three members of Alaska's congressional delegation, said drilling can be done safely with modern techniques and would decrease U.S. dependence on foreign oil and create jobs for Alaskans.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said Huffman "certainly takes a great interest in how we Alaskans operate. I would suggest he pay more attention to the issues in his own back yard and let me handle mine."

Young called the Democratic bill "a sham" and said, "Despite the Democrats' ongoing efforts, this is not a wilderness area. Let me say again: the (area set aside for drilling) is designated for development."

Alaskans, including Alaska Natives, overwhelmingly want to see the refuge opened to development, Young said. "Alaskans know and have repeatedly shown that responsible development and environmental stewardship can go together."

Huffman and other bill supporters noted that the 19.6 million acre refuge is home to more than 200 different wildlife species, including bird species that migrate to states and districts across the country.

"You don't have to have visited the refuge to be impacted and impressed by its ecological beauty," Huffman said. The Porcupine caribou herd is a vital source of subsistence for the indigenous Gwich'in people and the herd's survival will be imperiled by oil and gas development, he said.

Republicans and Democrats have fought over Arctic drilling for nearly four decades. Former President Bill Clinton vetoed a GOP plan to allow drilling in the refuge in 1995, and Democrats led by Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell defeated a similar plan in 2005.

The plan to allow drilling was included in the 2017 tax bill after lawmakers were unable to get a stand-alone measure approved.

Under the Interior Department's leasing plan, as many as 2,500 direct jobs would be created during peak years, and the state and federal government could receive as much as $936 million in royalties, said Chad Padgett, the Alaska state director for the Bureau of Land Management.

"I'm confident that we're on track to do what Congress has asked us to do in a safe and balanced way," while also advancing the president's goals of job creation and energy independence with minimal impact to the area, he said.

Protections for the Porcupine caribou herd and polar bears are part of the plan, officials said.

The Gwich'in Nation blasted the administration's plan.

"There is nothing final about this ... process except that it demonstrates that this administration and the Alaska delegation will disregard our way of life, our food, and our relationship with the land, the caribou, and future generations to pander to industry greed," Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, said in a statement. "This document disrespects the Gwich'in Nation and all people in the Arctic and world who suffer the impacts of climate change and nonstop exploitation, while formally scratching the backs of those who seek to desecrate land and dishonor human rights to fill their pockets."

The vote on Alaska drilling comes after the House approved two bills Wednesday that would permanently bar drilling off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and extend a moratorium on drilling off Florida's west coast.

Coastal lawmakers from both parties said the bills would protect U.S. coasts from drilling that can pollute crucial waters — and lead to disasters such as the 2010 BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Opponents, mostly Republicans, said the bills undercut domestic energy security and limit thousands of job opportunities.

The Senate is not expected on either of the offshore bills, which Trump has vowed to veto.

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Mark Thiessen in Anchorage, Alaska, contributed to this report.

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