A last-ditch bid to keep Big Oil out of Arctic Wildlife Refuge

By:  Joel Connelly
Source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Democrats in the House and U.S. Senate are launching an 11th hour effort to spare the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, America's greatest wilderness, from a hurry-up Trump Administrations bid to sell oil and gas leases. 

A back-door provision in Congress' 2017 tax cut opened the coastal plain of the 19-million acre Refuge to oil drilling. 

Oil development would take place in what is the calving ground for 100,000-plus animals of the Porcupine Caribou herd. It is a land of prey -- the caribou -- and such predators as wolves and barren ground grizzly bears. Offshore ice flows in the Beaufort Sea are prime polar bear habitat.

Along with five other Senate Democrats, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., will introduce legislation on Wednesday that would designate the coastal plain a wilderness are off-limits to haul roads, pipelines and drilling platforms. 

The cause is dear to Cantwell, who has trekked and rafted in the Refuge. She tried to block the tax bill from green-lighting oil development, but lost in a 52-47 Senate vote. 

The Democratic-controlled House will vote this week on a bill called the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act, which would repeal the tax bill provision opening the Refuge to drillers. 

The action in Congress comes as the Trump Administration seeks to rush completion of a draft environmental impact statement. The administration seeks to hold a lease sale in 2020, before the presidential election. 

The Senate legislation, and the House bill if it passes, will likely be blocked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But growing public concern about global warming -- most acutely felt in the Arctic -- makes Refuge drilling unpopular in the "lower 48" States. 

The Trump administration is likely to face a legal challenge, and has lost a series of lawsuits over its proposed rollbacks in environmental protection. 

One curious, recent development: The oil giant BP announced it is pulling out of Alaska, and selling its assets for $5.6 billion to a privately held Houston-based company called Hilcorp. BP has an estimated 1,600 employees in the 49th State. 

BP is a decades-long player in the Prudhoe Bay oil field, just west of the Arctic Refuge. It is also a 49 percent owner of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.

The BP pullout may be a signal that the coastal plain of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge does not contain as much oil as bullish predictions by the Trump Administration. 

Oil production in the United States is at record levels.