WASHINGTON — Colorado U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner set off an angry response from environmentalists this week with his vote to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Gardner is a member of the Senate committee that approved a bill to sell leases to oil companies that want to drill along Alaska’s northeast coast.
Republicans are trying to overcome opposition by arguing the estimated $1.1 billion in federal income the leases generate over a decade would offset revenue lost from their proposed tax cut.
The Republican Gardner said during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing this month that drilling in the refuge could be done in a way that does not interfere with wildlife and complies with environmental laws.
After the committee’s 13-10 vote Wednesday in favor of allowing the leases, some Colorado conservationists accused Gardner of hypocrisy.
“Senator Gardner keeps telling us he’s a public lands supporter but you can’t support public lands and then vote to open America’s largest and wildest refuge to fossil fuel development,” said Auden Schendler, a vice president of Aspen Skiing Co. “Adding Arctic Refuge drilling to the budget process is sneaky and callous. It’s a way to line the pockets of the fossil fuel industry by going around regular law-making procedures.”
A spokesman for Gardner declined to comment in an interview with Colorado Politics.
Conservationists say Alaska’s coastal plain is the most pristine place left in America. It provides the habitat and breeding ground for polar bears, caribou, wolves and other wildlife. Congress has banned oil and gas development on the nature refuge since it was set aside as protected land in 1980.
Opinions among conservatives shifted after a 2005 U.S. Geological Survey study discovered the refuge could hold as much as 11.8 billion barrels of recoverable crude oil. The size of the field made it comparable to the Prudhoe Bay reserves that turned Alaska into an oil industry giant beginning in the 1970s.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge covers 19.3 million acres. The proposed legislation would lease about 400,000 acres but allow only 2,000 acres of the coastal plain to be developed with wells and support facilities. The coastal plain is spread along 1.56 million acres of Alaska’s northeast coast.
The bill that won Gardner’s vote was introduced last week by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who said it would promote economic prosperity for her state. Revenue from the 16.67 percent royalty rate would be shared equally between Alaska and the federal government.
The bill was introduced as an amendment to the 2018 budget resolution, which means it needs only a 51-vote majority to pass in the Senate instead of the normal 60 votes for new legislation.
Its chances for success increased again Thursday when the House passed tax reform legislation supported by Republicans. The House tax bill contains provisions similar to the Republican budget resolution that would allow oil drilling in the refuge.
Murkowski said her bill would “put Alaska and the entire nation on a path toward greater prosperity by creating jobs, keeping energy affordable for families and businesses, generating new wealth and strengthening our security.”
Opponents say Murkowski exaggerated the revenue numbers while world markets are awash in an oil glut that has driven down prices. They also say the Senate committee downplayed the environmental hazards.
“Once the refuge is drilled, the landscape will be changed for generations,” said Sarah Tingey, operations director for Alpacka Raft, an outdoor adventure sports company, in Mancos.
Opposition in the Senate came mostly from Democrats, including Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who co-sponsored a bill in April to designate the Alaskan coastal plain as a wilderness that would be protected from industrial development.
“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of our nation’s greatest treasures,” Bennet said when he introduced the bill. “Coloradans take seriously the need to protect these iconic landscapes. From our state’s own Rocky Mountains to the Great Sand Dunes, we understand how vital wild places are to our communities and the $700 billion outdoor economy – a sector that includes many Colorado-based companies.”
The bill Bennet introduced with Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) has not won approval in Congress.
The pending bill to allow oil drilling is the closest any legislation has come to winning legislative approval.
President Bill Clinton vetoed a Republican plan to allow Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling in 1995. Democrats defeated a second Republican effort in 2005.
If the bill wins congressional approval this time, President Donald Trump already has signaled he will sign it into law.
Note: This story has been update to reflect the fact that it was some Colorado conservationists — and not the organization Conservation Colorado — that was critical of Gardner’s vote.