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As Senators Take Up Tax Plan, They'll Also Debate Oil Drilling In Alaska


Another question facing senators this week is whether to expand oil drilling in Alaska. The tax bill under consideration is linked to legislation that would let oil companies explore part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Elizabeth Harball of Alaska's Energy Desk reports on what Alaskans think of the idea.

ELIZABETH HARBALL, BYLINE: An annual resource development conference in Anchorage always ends with a champagne toast. But this year, in a room packed with people from Alaska's oil industry, the cheers seemed louder than usual.


HARBALL: They were happy that after a nearly four-decade ban, drilling in part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge might soon be allowed. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski has pushed the measure through a committee. It's tied to a tax overhaul the Senate still has to vote on.

It's not hard to find Alaskans cheering Congress on, especially in the hallways at this conference. Clint Wizenburg was working a booth for a hardware store that caters to oil companies. He thinks with the Trump administration in Washington, oil development in the refuge is now inevitable.

CLINT WIZENBURG: That's where I see some exploration that's going to help the state of Alaska. That's something I see taking off. Might be three, five, seven years, but it is going to happen.

HARBALL: Alaska's oil-dependent economy was hit hard in 2014 when the price per barrel plunged. The state is still in a recession. But Wizenburg says the latest effort to open up more of Alaska to oil drilling has him feeling positive.

WIZENBURG: Oil and gas - that's what our state thrives on. I mean, that's what made us who we are. So I see good things.

HARBALL: Michael Ferris agrees, and he doesn't even work in the oil industry. Ferris owns a local business selling printers and copiers. He thinks being able to drill in the refuge will benefit everyone in the state.

MIKE FERRIS: It's the greatest opportunity. It's a great time to be in Alaska, and I'm looking forward to just seeing all that development.

HARBALL: But at a restaurant down the block, the mood couldn't have been more different. There was a panel discussion about protecting the environment under the Trump administration. Environmental lawyer Valerie Brown from Trustees for Alaska said the fight to preserve Alaska's wilderness has now gotten tougher.

VALERIE BROWN: The dread and fear that we all felt last November, for me, has really found a place to roost.

HARBALL: Dana Durham was in the audience. She's a longtime opponent of drilling in the Arctic Refuge.

DANA DURHAM: I'm not hopeful at all.

HARBALL: The area that would be open to drilling is a small part of the Arctic Refuge, but environmental groups call it its biological heart. It's habitat for polar bears, one of the biggest caribou herds in America and birds that migrate all over the world. Durham is also worried that if the oil industry makes its way into the refuge, the area they develop will be shut to people who want to enjoy the wilderness.

DURHAM: So everything in that area there is going to be tied up. It's going to be like private land. Nobody will be able to go there.

HARBALL: The Congressional Budget Office estimates that opening the refuge would raise more than a billion dollars to help offset tax cuts. But analysts say there's no guarantee companies will rush to pump out oil. Cody Rice with Wood Mackenzie in New York says it's not clear how much oil is actually there.

CODY RICE: It's a big potential prize, but it's just that - potential - until we see more wells drilled.

HARBALL: That's just one uncertainty. Another is low oil prices. Right now it's not clear if oil development will make economic sense. Rice thinks at this point, it's possible that Alaska's politicians are more eager to drill in the Arctic Refuge than the oil industry. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Hardball in Anchorage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Harball