U.S. Senate passes budget that could open ANWR

Environmental groups held a rally at the Capitol Oct. 17, 2017, urging senators to vote against drilling in ANWR. Photo: Liz Ruskin.

The prospect of drilling rigs in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge just got a little more realistic. The U.S. Senate voted on a budget resolution Thursday night that includes a provision that that might, if the cards fall just so, achieve the long-held dream of Alaska’s political leaders to open ANWR to oil development by the end of the year.

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“We got one step,” Sen. Dan Sullivan said as he left the Senate chamber. “It’s an important step. And a strong vote. Really strong. And it was bipartisan.”

But it’s far from a done deal.

The full budget resolution, which passed narrowly, doesn’t have the force of law. It does, though, get senators to the next stage, a reconciliation bill. According to Senate rules, this kind of bill cannot be filibustered so it requires only 51 votes to pass.

Democrats tried to strike the ANWR-related measure from the resolution Thursday. That amendment failed 48-52. Two senators crossed party lines: Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WV, voted with the Republicans, helping those who want to open ANWR. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, voted with the Democrats.

The next forum for the ANWR debate is likely to be the Senate Energy Committee, chaired by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a champion of drilling in the refuge. She said she plans to hold a hearing on it within the next few weeks.

If ANWR makes it into the final bill, it would be bundled with Republican tax cuts, which are controversial on their own.

“I do recognize that it’s part of package,” Murkowski said after Thursday’s vote. “So we will have to work aggressively to not only make sure that ANWR carries its weight, but that other aspects of the package are good and sound.”

Democrats and environmental groups have pledged to work just as hard to keep ANWR closed to development.