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Tax Bill Would Open Alaska Wildlife Refuge To Drilling


We've been talking a lot about the tax bill making its way through Congress and provisions that will affect everyday Americans, but the bill contains at least one provision that has nothing to do with taxes. It's a proposal to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. Lawmakers in Alaska have been pushing drilling plans for decades. Environmental groups have pushed back just as hard. But now, the plans to open up the ANWR, as it's known, seem to be as close to law as they've ever been. Here to tell us more about it is Alaska Public Media's Washington, D.C., correspondent, Liz Ruskin. Thanks for joining us.

LIZ RUSKIN, BYLINE: Thank you, Ray.

SUAREZ: Now, we mentioned that Alaska's senators have been trying for years to open ANWR for drilling. Any idea why they were more successful this time around?

RUSKIN: It's really quite incredible because, for years, the Alaska delegation has been trying to sweeten the ANWR bills. Senator Ted Stevens would put billions and billions of dollars in these bills to try to make them more palatable. And this one is getting by, even though it remains controversial. But it's wrapped - almost, like, camouflaged - inside a larger controversy.

SUAREZ: When environmentalists have joined the battle over ANWR, they've described this stretch of Alaska as unique, pristine and irreplaceable. Have they dropped their intense opposition or is it just less evident this time around?

RUSKIN: No, they certainly have not dropped their opposition to drilling in the refuge. But I think that they have been unable to get as much traction. Their membership is distracted. Their constituencies are already calling their members of Congress to complain about all manner of items in this bill, and ANWR is low on the list.

SUAREZ: What about rank-and-file Alaskans?

RUSKIN: Drilling in the refuge is generally popular in Alaska. Polling shows that a majority of Alaskans favor it. A significant minority of Alaskans don't want to see the refuge opened.

SUAREZ: Why now? This is a very old fight - a very old argument. But the circumstances underlying it seem so different now. We've had the fracking revolution, cheaper gas, something closer to American energy self-sufficiency. Why is ANWR even a battle?

RUSKIN: Well, it's a battle because the Alaska delegation has relentlessly fought for it. So they are continuing. We don't know how much oil industry interest there is in drilling there. And also, there's a question of whether oil companies would want to take on the bad press that would surely follow for the company that tries to drill there. On the other hand, the refuge is close to the existing pipeline, and it's said to have some promising rock formations.

SUAREZ: So what happens - what's the mechanics now? If we're going to bring ANWR online, do you put it out for lease, do you put it out for bid - what happens?

RUSKIN: The tax bill calls for two lease sales within ten years. There would be a lot of environmental review that precedes them. I'm sure the environmental groups are not giving up. They will continue to watch it. And I expect there will be lawsuits, and it could take quite a while.

SUAREZ: That's Alaska Public Media's Washington correspondent, Liz Ruskin. Good to talk to you.

RUSKIN: Thank you, Ray. Good to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Liz Ruskin
Ray Suarez