A coalition of Native Americans and conservation leaders is opposing a Senate proposal to expand oil production along the North Slope of the Alaskan Coastal Plain in America’s largest remaining wilderness area.

Senate Republicans say development in the rural region is needed to help decrease future budget deficits caused by their party’s pending tax cut legislation.

Earlier this week, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources voted 13-10 (with Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia joining 12 Republicans in the majority) to send the proposal to the Senate floor for a vote.

A representative of the Gwich’in Indian Nation said oil development on the refuge threatens the nation’s existence.

“The Arctic Refuge, home to wildlife and vast lands essential to my people’s survival, has been reduced to a line item in a budget,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee.

Demientieff explained that her people’s identity is tied to the region’s Porcupine Caribou Herd. “We call the coastal plain the ‘the sacred place where life begins,’ providing our food, our clothing, our tools, everything,” Demientieff said.

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For the Gwich’In, oil drilling would likely lead to disruption of their traditional subsistence way of life. Nine-thousand Gwich’in people live on or near the migration route of the Porcupine Caribou Herd. The herd’s spring birthing and nursing grounds are in the zone of proposed oil development. The approximately 170,000 Caribou are still vital the tribe’s identity and culture, as well as for meeting people’s day-to-day needs.

ANWR contains 19.5 million acres, 8.9 million of which are currently protected as wilderness. The refuge contains the 170,000 caribou, as well as a healthy population of polar bears, wolves, moose, mountain sheep and bowhead whales. The federal land lies adjacent to significant oil production to its West, the National Patroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Current management, without oil production, allows native peoples to continue their traditional use of the land and wildlife in the region, while also bringing in a number of hunters, fishermen and other outdoor recreationists seeking a unique wilderness experience.

“This is the crown jewel that every backcountry hunter and angler should have the opportunity to fulfill in their lifetime,” said Barry Whitehill of Fairbanks, Alaska. Whitehill is part of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA), a conservation group that defends access to public lands for outdoor recreation. BHA recently launched a video urging those concerned about public land to urge Senators to vote against opening ANWR to oil development.

Pursuing fossil fuel development on public land is a key priority of the Trump administration and many members of Congress. In early November, the Senate passed a budget package that included a provision directing the Natural Resources Committee to find at least $1 billion in additional revenue since tax cuts would likely increase the federal deficit by trillions of dollars.  The move provides a “fast track” process that would allow Committee members to push forward money-earning proposals on federal lands, such as opening ANWR to fossil fuel development.

The Committee has scheduled a hearing on Wednesday, November 15, that could use the budget deal  to authorize the Secretary of the Interior to establish and administer a “competitive oil and gas program in the non-wilderness portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Natural Resource Committee Chair, supports opening ANWR to oil development. “This legislation is a tremendous opportunity for both Alaska and our country. The legislation I released tonight will put us on a path toward greater prosperity by creating jobs, keeping energy affordable for families and businesses, generating new wealth, and strengthening our security—while reducing the federal deficit not just by $1 billion over ten years, but tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars over the decades to come,” Murkowski stated in a press release.

Using the budget process to open ANWR to oil development is criticized by Democrats, including Ranking Committee member Maria Cantwell (D-WA). “I guarantee you that people do not need to ruin a wildlife refuge and an ecosystem that is intact just to give tax breaks to big corporations. We can do better than this. The only way they can open up drilling, again for something we don’t believe is going to generate the revenue or is needed to give tax breaks to corporations, is by mandating it – mandating the leasing,” Cantwell said during a press conference last week.

By using the budget reconciliation process to tie drilling in ANWR to the Senate tax revisions, Republicans could pass the changes with a simple majority vote. In the past, efforts to expand oil production in ANWR have failed to meet the regular Senate rules of a 60-vote threshold.

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