Senate Deal-Making on Tax Act Lays Waste to the Arctic

The ‘Tax Cuts and Jobs Act’ passed in the Senate early on December 2 opens the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling.

Area 1002 of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain, looking south toward the Brooks Range mountains. This area is one of the prime targets for new drilling leases in the ANWR.

Up until a few days ago, Alaskan Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski was a holdout who might have blocked passage of the Senate version of the new tax cut act. Her price to approve it, which she did as part of a 51 to 49 vote, was a small but critically important rider added to the bill at the last minute.

That rider, if it stays in the bill after the House and Senate reconciliation process finishes, will allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for the first time in 57 years. That is almost as long as Alaska has been a state.

The rider has nothing to do with tax cuts, but everything to do with deal-making. Senator Murkowski praised the passage of the bill as a “critical milestone in our efforts to secure Alaska’s energy future”. That phrasing, which shows the self-centered nature of the rider, one which benefits the oil industry and in one state, also notably ignores that drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is completely unnecessary to secure America’s energy future. That future, which was already well in place thanks to aggressive development of renewable energy options and the previous support of the fossil fuel industry, has no need for this new drilling other than as an opportunity to make more money for the oil companies and those working the land.

The rider helps Senator Murkowski in numerous ways. There are indigenous peoples in the area – voters she depends on – who will see a sizable increase in jobs as the move into the drilling area to support building, maintaining and operating the drilling rigs and pipelines there. The tribes on Alaska’s North Slope, the flat coastal area bordering the Arctic Ocean, would also see significant financial payments that could represent a major change in their livelihoods. The oil also of course locks up support from every part of the oil industry, which will very likely convert into major financial support for Murkowski’s next election run.

The refuge consists of 19,286,722 acres of currently protected territory at the northeast corner of Alaska. It borders with Canada’s Yukon territory and the oceans to the north. Among the wildlife who call this area home are the Porcupine caribou, whose herd of 169,000 conduct an annual 1500 mile migration. That migration takes them from their winter home in northwest Canada, over the mountains and into the coastal plain where the new drilling would be authorized. As this migration is disrupted, it could turn out to be life-and-death critical to the Gwich’in natives who live there, and depend on the caribou.

The area is also home to highly sensitive tundra vegetation such as rare poplar trees not visible anywhere else in the region. Gyrflacons and gold eagles are in the cliffs of the mountains. Harlequin ducks, dali sheep, polar bears, muskoxen, wolf packs, grizzly bears, and Arctic ground squirrels are also present. There are also millions of migratory birds who depend on the entire ecosystem to live as well. Fish in the icy streams are also critical to the habitat. All of those could have their feeding, migration, breeding, and nesting areas disrupted in major ways as the oil drilling proceeds as expected. And the first – because there WILL be a first – pipeline leak will create further ecological damage that may be unrecoverable.

The precious trees, fish, animals, and other living things mentioned here cannot vote of course, even though they outnumber the people here by large numbers. So they will likely simply die and their numbers dwindle quietly as the sound of trucks, oil drilling sites, and associated development proceeds forward ever louder every day.

Such is the price of getting passage for the Senate Tax Cuts act, at a cost which will be tallied as an environmental catastrophe for many years to come.