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Climate Change and Oil Prices Should Bury Arctic Drilling Forever

Polar bears | Gary Kramer/USFWS
Polar bears | Gary Kramer/USFWS

This article originally appeared in The Hill on August 4, 2017.

In the wake of Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-Ala.) votes against the Senate Republican health care bill, media reports have suggested that Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has threatened to withdraw administration support for building a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge and for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Whatever one may think about the motives for these threats, a more skeptical administration position would be right on the merits: Neither of these projects makes any sense outside of a crass political deal.

The demand for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the ultimate political zombie, and it is back yet again.  The House Budget Resolution would require the Natural Resources Committee to achieve at least $5 billion of savings over the next 10 years.  Because that committee lacks jurisdiction over any major entitlement programs, this effectively mandates that it open the Arctic Refuge and other federal lands to oil drilling.  (So much for the Budget Committee’s pious protestations that it would never presume to dictate policy to authorizing committees!)

This proposal is so lacking in plausibility that it can only be understood as a case of stubbornness triumphing over reason.  Time has passed the Arctic Refuge drilling proposal by, yet the politicians that have repeatedly promised to drill there seem to have become prisoners of those pledges.  (More echoes of the healthcare debate?)

In prior years, advocates of drilling in the Arctic Refuge insisted that doing so was essential to bringing down prices at the pumps.  That never made much sense — the additional oil’s impact would be barely a drop in the barrel of the world petroleum supply — but anyone decrying energy prices today clearly has not been to a gas station recently.  As CBO has pointed out, if the goal is to increase federal revenues, in the middle of a fuel price glut is exactly the wrong time to be putting Refuge oil into production.  Even big oil executives, who once salivated to drill in the Refuge, now seem to yawn at the prospect.

Arguments about energy independence also make little sense anymore.  Thanks to the rapid growth of fracking, the U.S. is significantly less dependent on imported oil than it was even a few years ago.  Being able to fall back on our own sources if necessary is prudent in a world where much of the oil is controlled by despots whose interests may clash with ours.  And for precisely that reason, we should leave the Refuge’s oil in the ground rather than expend it or export it.

Heedless demands to drill in Arctic Refuge are also tragically anachronistic in light of accelerating climate change.

On the one hand, energy competition in the future is shifting from petroleum to renewables, not finding remote, expensive places to drill.  And on the other, the Arctic Refuge has become ever more precious as a redoubt for vulnerable wildlife.  Many polar bears can no longer find suitable locations on sea ice, with the Refuge the most important alternative.  Even supposedly low-impact oil exploration activities can disrupt bears in their dens.  Disturbances can cause mothers to flee their dens, resulting in the deaths of cubs unable to fend for themselves.  As caribou and other wildlife have faced increasing challenges due to oil extraction activities in other parts of Alaska, the loss or degradation of the Refuge could become disastrous.

The Senate’s Byrd Rule likely would, and should, exclude an authorization to drill from any reconciliation bill — the intended outcome of the House Budget Resolution — because any fiscal effects are merely incidental to the ideological commitment to the project.  If proponents were genuinely interested in deficit reduction, they would not want to grant drilling rights now and eliminate our ability to derive much more income in the future when oil prices return to historic levels.  Including this in the budget resolution is tantamount to a budget gimmick that makes deficits look marginally better in the near-term while tightening our fiscal straightjacket in the middle- and long-term.

We no longer allow Congress to claim savings from selling public buildings that we will simply have to lease back in the future.  Selling oil on public lands at bargain-basement prices during an oil glut is similarly worthless as deficit reduction.  The Byrd Rule prohibits including ideological projects like this in reconciliation legislation, even where there may be some modest score, in part to focus Congress on its duty to achieve long-term fiscal sustainability.

We have had enough trouble lately from incessant demands that we enact bad policy simply because someone once promised to do so.  We should lay Arctic Refuge drilling proposals to rest and move on to serious discussions of fiscal and energy policy.

David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Permanent link to this article: http://refugeassociation.org/2017/08/climate-change-and-oil-prices-should-bury-arctic-drilling-forever/

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