Tax Bill Opens Arctic Refuge for Oil, but Years of Delay May Follow

Congress is close to lifting a 40-year-old ban on energy development in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but drilling for oil in that frozen wilderness may still be years away as the effort faces exhaustive environmental reviews and likely lawsuits.

It could be a decade or more before any well is drilled, following required environmental scrutiny and permit reviews—and then the inevitable lawsuits from local communities and environmental groups opposed to any development in that rugged wilderness.

"It’s still an open question about whether drilling will ever happen there," said Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former Interior Department official. "It’s hard to image that drilling will occur in the next 10 years—or ever."

The House voted on 19 December for a tax bill that includes a provision mandating that the Interior Department hold lease sales in the so-called 1002 area of the Arctic Refuge, a coastal portion of the 19-million-acre federally protected wilderness area. The refuge is estimated to contain 11.8 billion barrels of technically recoverable crude. 

The Senate was set to vote on the measure later in the day. After a procedural hiccup, the House will need to revote on it on 20 December. If passed, it will go to President Donald Trump for his signature.

After years of dogged effort, the vote is a victory for Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, the measure’s chief benefactor. Republicans included a provision that would have sped up federal environmental reviews, but that was stripped out of the measure because it ran afoul of budget rules.

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