Is ANWR drilling key to climate legislation?

By Kennedy Maize

Washington,  OCTOBER 21, 2009 — With prospects for a new international agreement on climate change (Kyoto II) in Copenhagen in December faltering, environmentalists in the U.S. may be facing a Hobson’s choice with the climate-energy legislation now before the U.S. Congress. The choice may be to agree to drilling for oil and gas in offshore Alaska and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which the environmental community has resisted for over 30 years, or the give up cap-and-trade legislation. Take it or leave it?

The New York Times reports that the costs of climate control are likely to kill the Copenhagen meeting. The Economist also predicts failure in Copenhagen. The Obama administration has acknowledged that it will not agree to a global treaty – a follow-on to the ill-fated 1997 Kyoto Protocol – unless the agreement can win approval in Congress. That’s unlikely.

Now, major climate change and energy legislation faces the U.S. Senate, after a controversial bill (Waxman-Markey), unlikely to win support in the Senate, passed the House.

Enter Senate oil-state members from both parties, particularly the two Alaskans. They haven’t made their demands specific, but the political body language is clear. If the administration were to support oil exploration and production in the tiny coastal portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where most petroleum geologists believe large onshore resources are waiting for drill bits, and offshore Alaska, similarly resource-rich, maybe the oil-state legislators could agree to climate change legislation. Wink-wink, nudge-nudge.

It’s not just Alaskans. Solons from oil states including Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado, have doubts and interests, spoken and unspoken, at stake in climate legislation. With 60 votes needed to pass any climate bill in the Senate, and coal-state legislators a major obstacle, the administration’s advocates for climate legislation have a decidedly uphill battle.

One key so far is Republican Lisa Murkowski, Alaska’s senior senator (the other Alaskan is Mark Begich, Alaska’s junior, a Democrat). Murkowski is the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, an important position in a chamber where it takes 60 votes to enact legislation.

In a Reuters article in mid-October, Murkowski said she would be open to Democratic-sponsored “cap-and-trade” legislation if Democrats would consider significant efforts to build more nuclear plants and greater opportunities for drilling for oil and gas on-and-off shore. She’s sending a clear political message that more domestic fossil fuel production is as valuable as reduced consumption of fossil fuels.

I see Murkowski’s position as a not-so-veiled reference to drilling in ANWR. That has long been a goal of Alaskan politicians of both parties, with the nukes thrown in for Republican political correctness. Many Republicans and some Democrats, particularly from oil-and-gas states, have supported ANWR drilling, opposed by most environmental groups. The evidence of large oil reserves is compelling. Environmentalists would just as soon not see new oil finds anywhere. That undermines their view that we need to eschew fossil fuels, which, they hope, are a diminishing resource.

Murkowski’s mention of the nukes – of which Alaska has none, and is unlikely to ever have one – was a hint of a political deal. She’s suggesting that states that have and want to expand nuclear power had better get together with the oil-and-gas interests. Together, Murkowski is hinting, there is a coalition to hold climate legislation hostage for other aims. It’s a classic political tactic.

The Obama administration may have sent a message to the Alaskans that it recognizes the nuke-oil ploy. The Interior Department in mid-October approved action on long-delayed oil and gas exploration leases in the Beaufort Sea, off Alaska’s northern coast. That move drew screams of betrayal from environmental groups. The Washington Post quoted Sierra Club lobbyist Athan Manuel, “There is no safe way to drill in the Beaufort Sea. Cleaning up on oil spill in the Arctic’s broken sea ice is next to impossible, and where there is drilling, there are oil spills.” Not accurate, but clearly reflecting the club’s position on Beaufort leases.

The petroleum industry has long supported oil and gas exploration in the Beaufort and the Chukchi Sea to the west, but has been unable to muster sufficient political support in Congress and the Interior Department. It now appears that Interior will allow Beaufort exploration, and the Chukchi may not be far behind. Whither ANWR, long an oily grail for Alaskans and many Republicans in the Congress?

ANWR drilling has been the mark of Satan for some of the Obama-supporting greens. This may set up a confrontation between the forces aimed at reducing fossil fuel development at any level, particularly in Alaska, and those in the internationalist environmental movement who want to put into place a carbon reduction scheme that might allow further development of oil and gas resources. It’s a tension that’s been under the surface of environmentalism for many years.

Historically, the environmental movement has finessed its internal contradictions by agreeing that no Arctic development was necessary as long as “renewable” alternatives such as wind, solar, and geothermal were on the agenda. Now industry advocates of oil and gas exploration have called out the greens: Agree to oil and gas exploration or forget any kind of greenhouse gas control regime. Renewable energy is off the table. It is worthwhile, but impracticable as a replacement for fossil fuels. Smart politicians, despite what they say publicly, understand that there is no significant fossil-renewables tradeoff that works. So a deal could be cooking.

Lisa Murkowski said in a press release that she saw the Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service decision to approve Beaufort Sea exploration as “an encouraging sign that Alaska’s oil and natural gas resources will continue to play a major role in America’s energy security.”

The opposition of environmental groups appears irrelevant, as they are unable to produce evidence that off-shore and on-shore drilling has resulted in severe environmental damage. Ironically, an administration that has won wide-spread environmental support can now blow off its green wing when it comes to oil and gas exploration.

Murkowski, the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has introduced a bill that would exploration on the “1002 lands” of the Arctic refuge (established in the 1980 law creating the refuge). Those acres are a small and furiously contested part of the enormous ANWR territory in northern Alaska. Few doubt that the coastal acres harbor large amounts of oil and natural gas. Oil is already seeping to the ground in the area, a classic indication of large and accessible reserves..

Under the 1980 Alaska lands law, 1.5 million ANWR coastal acres are allowed for exploration out of a total of 19 million acres in the reserve, most of it in the Brooks mountain range to the south. Under the terms of the law, oil and gas exploration is off limits in most of the ANWR territory, but can be allowed in the land defined in section 1002 of the law, a portion of the coastal plain bordering the Beaufort Sea and the Canadian border. Oil and gas exploration in this region requires positive Congressional approval, which has never happened. Numerous oil seeps, and a secretive exploration well by native Alaskans, allowed under the 1980 act, suggest major oil reserves in the disputed 1002 territory.

Responding to the Interior decision on Beaufort drilling, Begich said, carefully phrasing his response to avoid the ANWR issue, “This decision shows Secretary Salazar and the Obama administration recognize the importance of Alaska’s abundant offshore oil and gas resources, and it brings us one step closer to environmentally-responsible development offshore of Alaska. They are getting the balance right: including safeguards for important subsistence resources and allowing drilling to go forward.”

Ironically, onshore oil production, such as might occur at ANWR, is far less potentially polluting than offshore rigs, which might show up at the Beaufort and Chuchki Sea sites. Existing onshore production at the Prudhoe Bay complex and its gathering and pipeline system have an exemplary environmental record. Environmentalists in the 1970s opposed the Trans Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS) to move North Slope crude to tankers in Valdez as a potential environmental hazard. They were wrong.

Tanker shipments from the end of the pipeline in southern Alaska proved to be the environmental hazard, as the Exxon Valdez crash and spill in 1989 demonstrated. TAPS has proven to be a safe, reliable way to move crude oil. It is a system that local wildlife have embraced, as many photographs of grizzly bears walking on top of the warm pipeline, and caribou grazing under it, have shown.

Dynastic political history is interesting when it comes to the Alaska energy issue. Lisa Murkowski’s father, Frank Murkowski, was a Republican senator from Alaska from 1981 to 2002, and governor of Alaska from 2002 to 2006. He was chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee from 1995 to 2002, where he tirelessly and unsuccessfully pushed for ANWR drilling. When he became Alaska’s governor, he named his daughter, Lisa, a member of the Alaska legislature, to succeed him in the Senate. She was elected in her own right to the U.S. Senate in 2004.

Frank Murkowski, tainted by scandals not directly associated with him, lost big in a three-way Republican primary battle for the GOP nomination for governor in 2006. The winner of the contest was the largely-unknown maverick Wasilla mayor Sarah Palin (with 51% to 31% for businessman Joe Binkley, and 19% for incumbent Murkowski). Palin went on to win the general election, and in 2008, became Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain’s running mate.

There is speculation that Palin might challenge Lisa Murkowski, who is up for reelection in 2004, in the Republican primary. Alaska’s poisonous and dynastic politics would resume. Stay tuned.