Caribou grazing on the coastal plain at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr

Congressional Republicans are one step closer to opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling, a goal that proponents of fossil fuel energy development in Alaska have been chasing for decades.

On Thursday, the Senate struck down an amendment to the 2018 federal budget that would have removed a provision to raise an additional $1 billion through leasing of federal lands. That provision, championed by Alaskan Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, is considered a thinly-veiled attempt to open part of the 19.6-million acre ANWR to oil extraction.

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The amendment failed with a 52-48 vote on Thursday that came down largely along party lines. Only two Senators—Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Manchin (D—W.Va.)—broke ranks. Collins voted to remove the instructions to raise additional revenue through federal leasing, while Manchin voted against that amendment.

Murkowski, who chairs the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, now has the opportunity to write legislation that would find the additional $1 billion in revenue. It would be attached to a tax reform bill that GOP leaders hope to pass by the end of the year through the “budget reconciliation” process, meaning it would only require a 51-vote majority in the Senate to pass, rather than the usual 60 votes.

Advocates of energy development in Alaska cheered the news on Thursday. According to the Washington Post, Murkowski said the budget instructions are “about jobs, about job creation. It’s about wealth and wealth creation.” She said that while drilling in ANWR isn’t the only option for raising $1 billion in new federal revenue, “it is the best option, and it’s on the table.”

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Alaska Dispatch News reports that Murkowski, along with her senate colleague Dan Sullivan (R-AK) are arguing that, thanks to technological improvements, drilling in ANWR today would have a far smaller surface footprint than it would have in the 1980s, when Alaskan Republicans first started pushing the issue.

“Well pads on the North Slope have shrunk by over 80 percent,” since oil extraction began in neighboring Prudhoe Bay in the ‘80s, Murkowski said on the Senate floor yesterday. “We’ve reduced the footprint dramatically.”

Environmentalists aren’t buying it.

Groups like the National Audubon Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council were quick to condemn Thursday’s vote, which they see as an appropriation of the budget process to open federal lands to ecologically-destructive petroleum extraction.

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“This move by the Senate poses a grave threat to the Arctic Refuge, and Americans should be outraged at the shameless hijacking of the federal budget process,” The Wilderness Society president Jamie Williams said in a statement. “The Arctic Refuge is simply too fragile and special to drill, and we have a moral obligation to protect it for future generations.”

Miyoko Sakashita, Oceans Program Director at the Center For Biological Diversity, told Earther it was “really disappointing” to see Senators trying once again to push a provision for drilling in ANWR, “especially when it’s hidden in a budget bull as must-pass legislation.”

“The Arctic coastal plain is a jewel, it has important wildlife, and it’s no place for drilling,” she said.

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ANWR is one of the last great wilderness areas in North America.

Established by President Eisenhower in 1960, the refuge is home to a profusion of Arctic and sub-Arctic species, including Arctic foxes, Dall sheep, moose, muskoxen, and roughly 200 species of migratory birds. It is a stomping ground for two major Alaskan caribou herds, and it contains the most important land denning habitat for polar bears in the Alaskan Arctic, according to the Alaska Wilderness League.

ANWR is also critically important to the Gwich’in, a people who have lived in northeast Alaska and northwest Canada for thousands of years, and whose food security and culture is intimately tied to the Porcupine River caribou herd. The herd calves on ANWR’s coastal plain in mid-July.

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“Everything we do is connected to the health of the Porcupine River caribou herd,” Norma Kassi, cofounder of the Arctic Institute of Community-Based Research, told Arctic Deeply over the summer, adding that the herd is “the nation’s main source of food, ceremony and culture. It’s a very sacred part of our being.”

The Gwich’n, along with environmental groups, have vowed to continue fighting efforts to open up ANWR to drilling. It’s a fight that has been raging since the early 1980s, when the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act expanded the the amount of refuge land in the state, but included a provision that a 1.5 million-acre coastal region of ANWR, the “1002 area,” would be set aside for review for oil and gas potential.

Anything more than early exploration, however, would require Congressional approval and the President’s signature. Bids to open the area to drilling have never mustered all the required federal signatures.

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With an oil-friendly administration in the White House, however, this might be the best shot drilling proponents have had in years. Interior secretary Ryan Zinke has already demonstrated his support for further resource exploration in the 1002 area of ANWR. And if a bill makes it to the Oval Office, Trump is very likely to sign it.

This article has been updated with comments from Miyoko Sakashita