As Republicans look to reconcile key differences between the House and Senate versions of their tax bills, one of the flashpoints is around a remote, eastern corner of Alaska — the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, considered one of the most pristine wilderness areas in the country.
The Senate bill includes a provision to open up 1.5 million acres to oil and gas exploration. And because U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine supported the tax bill, she now finds herself under fire from some environmental allies.
Collins has been praised by environmental groups in Maine and around the country for accepting climate science. She was the only Senate Republican who voted against preventing the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases.
Earlier this year Collins voted against the nomination of Scott Pruitt to head the agency. And her voting record on environmental issues has earned high marks from the League of Conservation Voters.
But with the inclusion of drilling in the ANWR in the Senate tax bill and her support for that, Collins is facing a new wave of scrutiny from these same groups.
“It’s completely against how she has voted in the past,” says Lisa Pohlmann, executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, who calls the move a “giveaway to the oil and gas industry.”
This week the NRCM took out an online newspaper ad expressing disappointment in Collins’ vote.
“It’s too bad. You know, we’re trying to do so many things on the renewable energy and on the climate change front here in Maine, and she’s been basically been supportive of those things. So, this is a really unreasonable departure on her part as far as we’re concerned,” Pohlmann says.
Maine Conservation Voters also expressed disappointment in Collins.
“We urge her [Collins] to protect our natural legacy by working to remove this damaging language before the bill becomes law,” executive director Maureen Drouin said in a written statement.
Collins’ spokesperson points out that she was the only Senate Republican who voted, unsuccessfully, for an earlier, failed budget amendment to block raising revenue through drilling in the Arctic. Supporters, such as Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, see potential oil drilling in the ANWR as a way to pay for a small portion of the massive tax cuts. And Kara Moriarty, president and CEO of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, says it’s something a majority of Alaskans have wanted for a long time.
“We’ve been producing oil in Alaska commercially for over 50 years, and on the North Slope for over 40. And, to us, this coastal plain of ANWR is just an extension of what we already know how to do,” she says.
Moriarty says Alaskans also know how to balance the interests of their unique environment with their natural-resource-based economy.
Critics point out that Congress has voted several dozen times to reject drilling in the ANWR, which is home to polar bears, wolves, migratory birds and one of Alaska’s largest populations of porcupine caribou. That’s why groups like the Wilderness Society were running ads even before the Senate’s vote.
“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the last truly wild places on Earth. But Congress is pushing a scheme to drill America’s refuge that would pollute it beyond repair to create tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires,” the ad says.
Collin O’Mara, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, is now encouraging his members to contact Collins and other environmental leaders in Congress to insist that a final tax package not include the ANWR provision.
“We need to raise up a conservation army across the country to have our voices heard, because the polling on this stuff is overwhelming. Well over 70 percent of Americans do not want drilling in the Arctic, and it’s hard to get 70 percent of Americans to agree on anything right now,” he says.
O’Mara says it’s clear where independent U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine stands on the issue — he’s been consistent in his opposition all along. But Collins, he says, will be crucial if the ANWR provision is included in the final tax bill.