JUNEAU, Alaska — Alaska political leaders on Wednesday hailed as historic the passage of federal legislation that will allow for oil and gas drilling in a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The state’s Republican congressional delegation sees it as a win decades in the making, one they say will provide a boost for this oil-reliant state. Environmental groups see it as a big mistake and say the fight isn’t over.
The drilling provision was part of a larger package — a major restructuring of U.S. tax policy — that also repeals a requirement that Americans carry health insurance or face a penalty.
U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young, who has served in the U.S. House since 1973, were among the lawmakers invited by President Donald Trump to speak at an event Wednesday marking the bill’s passage.
Young said persistence paid off.
Earlier, Sullivan told reporters that elections have consequences. He said both the Senate’s Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, and the Republican White House were supportive of the effort to allow for drilling in the refuge, which is in the northeast part of the state.
Murkowski, who became chair of the Senate energy committee after the GOP in 2014 regained Senate control, said drilling can occur in a way that balances development with care for the environment.
That’s already happening on Alaska’s oil-rich North Slope, she said.
There have been significant technological advances since the push to allow for drilling began decades ago, she said. Murkowski and Sullivan said critics used “tired,” outdated talking points when citing concerns about potential impacts.
One critic of the legislation, Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement that history will not judge kindly those who supported drilling in the refuge.
“Promised oil and revenues are highly speculative and uncertain but the resolve of those opposed to drilling is not,” he said. “We will fight to defend the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the courts, in the corporate boardrooms and in Congress where, over time, we will seek to restore protections for this crown jewel of our National Wildlife Refuge System and for the polar bears, caribou, musk oxen and millions of migratory birds that call it home.”
Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society, called the vote “one of the most anti-environment votes in the history of Congress.”
Meanwhile, Murkowski, who has been a key voice in the health care debate, said she’s hopeful the Senate will act on bills to help stabilize markets for individual health insurance policies and help address premium costs.
She said it is good to get rid of the requirement that people have insurance or face penalties.
The state Division of Insurance has said it does not expect there to be much of an impact on the Alaska market if the requirement is repealed.
The division has said that 19,000 Alaskans did not buy insurance and paid more than $12 million in penalties in 2015, though nearly 16,000 of those would have qualified for subsidies to help pay premium costs or for expanded Medicaid.
“Again, we support the mandate but with such a small market, knowing how many are already not complying, it is hard to show an impact that will further decrease the market,” the division said.