Democrats fail to stop refuge drilling plan

Republicans on Senate Energy turned out in force. Photo: Liz Ruskin.

The U.S. Senate Energy Committee Wednesday approved legislation that would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling. Democrats tried repeatedly kill or weaken the measure, but they failed to stop the advance of the drilling measure.

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Sen. Murkowski knew she had the votes. All of the Republicans on her committee favor drilling, and they are the majority.

Still, Democrats put up a fight. They argued the measure, by mandating oil lease sales,  would nullify environmental protections. They argued it would change the purpose of the refuge, from protecting wildlife to producing oil.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., took the long view, saying the senators’ grandchildren will hold them accountable for climate change.

“What this committee should be doing, working with people all over the world, is saying ‘how do we transform our energy system away from fossil fuel, away from coal, oil and gas to sustainable energy?'” Sanders said.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, an avid elk hunter, focused on the Porcupine Caribou Herd that uses the coast of the refuge as its calving ground. Heinrich, D-N.M., proposed putting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director in charge of deciding what actions would be detrimental to the herd.

“The question is, on a wildlife refuge, what comes first? Does wildlife come first? You would think so, from the name,” Heinrich said.

Heinrich’s amendment, like all of those proposed by Democrats, failed.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., suggested Alaska’s budget crisis was driving short-sighted decisions.

“The notion that oil prices have fallen and a state has been over-reliant on oil does not mean that we should be destroying a wildlife refuge today,” Cantwell said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski told reporters after the hearing it’s not certain the drilling section will remain in the bill. Photo: Liz Ruskin

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who chairs the Energy Committee, says America can have both oil production and wildlife on the same area.

“We will not sacrifice the caribou, the polar bears, or the migratory birds for the sake of development,” Murkowski said. “But we also recognize that that’s not a choice that we face here.”

The measure passed 13-10, with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., joining all Republicans in voting for drilling.

In the back of the hearing room, Bernadette Demientieff was sad and angry. She’s from Fort Yukon and directs the Gwich’in Steering Committee, one of the lead Alaska voices against drilling. She says her people depend on the Porcupine Caribou herd, and the herd depends on the refuge.

“We’re not going to stop fighting,” Demientieff said after the hearing. “We can’t. This is our way of life. This is everything that we know.”

But 3,000 miles from Washington, Gov. Bill Walker was positively giddy when he addressed the annual Resource Development Council conference in Anchorage after the committee voted. Walker said 13-10 was his new favorite number.

“We’re not across the finish line yet, but, boy, today was a great day, and I cannot thank Sen. Murkowski enough,” Walker said.

The Arctic drilling provision will now be combined with the Senate tax cut plan and put to a vote of the full Senate. That’s likely to happen after Thanksgiving. Murkowski says she’s sure there will be moves to drop the drilling section from the bill.

Elizabeth Harball contributed to this report from Anchorage.