Alaskan officials eager to open ANWR, even if promised more

The area that could be opened to drilling is shown in orange. Map: USGS

Debate on whether Congress should allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge  is scheduled to begin in the U.S. Senate Energy Committee Wednesday morning. If passed and signed into law, the Congressional Budget Office estimates it would raise $2.2 billion in the first decade. Half of that revenue would got to the state of Alaska, as would half of all royalties if oil is discovered and extracted. But some Alaskans who favor drilling say the state deserves far more.

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Loren Leman was in grade school when Alaska became a state, but from his earliest political memories, he has known Congress promised Alaska would get 90 percent of revenues from mineral leasing on federal lands, in perpetuity.

“Alaskans were told ‘this is the promise,” Leman said. “And then, you know, for it to be other than that is, I think, an example of another broken promise.”

Leman grew up to be a state senator and then lieutenant governor. The 90 percent promise lives on in his heart. And not just there. In 2005, for instance, the Alaska Legislature overwhelmingly voted to oppose “any attempt to coerce the State of Alaska into accepting less than the 90 percent” Alaska was promised at statehood.

But, Leman says environmental groups and others opposed to drilling in the refuge have been pummeling the state for 37 years already. Leman says it’s a matter of counting votes in Congress.

Loren Leman, via UAA.alaska.edu

“The reality is we’re likely not going to get there without reverting to the 50-50 split,” Leman said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s ANWR proposal, like others before it, back to the 1990s, calls for a 50-50 split. Leman hopes it passes. And if it does? Leman can’t rule out some kind of legal action.

“I don’t know that we necessarily show all over our hands, or even talk about what might be. But I believe Alaska ought to continue to assert its rights as aggressively as possible,” Leman said.

That might not be easy. Some say the Alaska Statehood Act doesn’t actually guarantee Alaska 90 percent of revenues forever. In the 1990s, then-Gov. Wally Hickel sued to enforce the 90-10 split and lost.

Current Gov. Bill Walker says he’s not going to argue with an even split if it means Congress will finally allow oil development in the refuge.

“50 percent of something is better than 90 percent of nothing,” Walker said.

If congressional estimates are correct, the 50-50 split would give Alaska, over the next 10 years, about $1.1 billion. That’s less than half the current annual budget deficit.

And yet, to hear Sen. Maria Cantwell tell it, even 50 percent of the revenues is too much to give Alaska. The Washington State Democrat leads the anti-drilling fight in the Senate. She says when her colleagues learn ANWR revenues could help Alaska with its budget problem, it helps turn them against drilling.

Sen. Maria Catwell, flanked by Sens. Michael Bennet, left, and Ed Markey. Photo by Liz Ruskin.

“We’ve talked to several members who now are saying, ‘oh, I didn’t realize that was the structure, that we were giving Alaskans basically, the opportunity to get well on the revenue that might come off of this,'” Cantwell told reporters at a press conference last week.

Cantwell’s primary objection, though, is environmental. She says drilling would damage a treasured ecosystem. Sen. Murkowski, like most of Alaska’s elected leaders, says drilling can be done with little impact.