Tasked with finding ways to save at least $1 billion over the next decade, the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a marathon hearing Thursday to discuss the controversial idea of opening a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska to oil and natural gas drilling.

Two weeks after the Senate passed a $4 trillion federal budget for fiscal year 2018, the committee heard from three panels of witnesses to discuss the merits of opening the 1.5-million acre coastal plain of the 19-million acre ANWR, a region also known as the 1002 Area, to energy development. The hearing lasted nearly five hours.

“There has been some discussion out there as to whether we can meet our $1 billion instruction,” committee chair Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said in her opening remarks. “The answer to that is a simple ‘yes.’ And I would remind the committee that the first 10 years are just the start…of a 40-year period where responsible production raises billions of dollars in revenues for our country every year.”

Murkowski noted only 2,000 acres of the 1002 Area are up for consideration to develop, or roughly one ten-thousandth of ANWR. “We have waited for nearly 40 years for the right technologies to come along, so that the footprint of development is small enough to ensure that the environment continues to be respected and will not be harmed,” she said.

‘Caribou For Millionaires’

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), the committee’s ranking member and a long-time foe of ANWR drilling, called the hearing “a great departure from the strong working relationship” she had built with Murkowski. Cantwell criticized the makeup of the three witness panels, noting that Sens. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Michael Bennet (D-CO), who also oppose opening up ANWR, were excluded.

“We’re here today because someone has come up with a ludicrous idea that we can pass a tax reform bill that raises the deficit, increases our taxes and that will take a sliver out of a wildlife refuge to do it,” Cantwell said. “I almost want to call this ‘Caribou for Millionaires,’ because it is the most ridiculous idea I’ve ever heard as it relates to meeting the tax reform agenda…We have no bill before us today, and there’s a proposed markup for next Wednesday. When will we see that language? When will we have any idea about this process?”

ANWR supporters, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Rep. Don Young (R-AK) and Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, were the first to testify. Sullivan and Young took shots at Cantwell.

“The fundamental disconnect in the discussion of the 1002 Area is that the debate has not kept up with Alaska’s high standards, [which are] the highest in the world, in advancements in technology,” Sullivan said. “So, with all due respect to the ranking member, a lot has changed.

“Responsibly developing the 1002 Area is truly a win-win-win for our country. It will create jobs [and] help grow the economy; increase energy security for Americans; and, very importantly, it will help protect the global environment and strengthen our national security.”

Briefly into his testimony, Young used a blue pen to make a dot at the end of his nose. “You see anything different on my nose right now? One tenth of one tenth of a percent [is what] we’re talking about disturbance. This little dot on my nose is what we’re talking about,” Young said, adding that the 1002 Area currently holds potential for 20 billion bbl of oil.

“You’re going to hear a lot of nonsense stories later on in the day. This is not about the environment or the caribou; it’s about economics…If we are to be energy sufficient, we need ANWR…Now we’re fighting the same battle again because of the ignorance and misinformation from those [opposed to] any resource development at all — not only in Alaska, but the nation as a whole — to make us less strong, to make us a second-rate nation. That’s what a lot of you wish to do.”

Walker said resource development was in Alaska’s DNA and precluded statehood in 1959, and 90% of the state legislature supports opening up ANWR to drilling.

“Please, please let us develop our resources responsibly so we can fund our state, make Alaskans feel safe, fund our education [and] fund our health services by multiples,” Walker said. “Please let us have the benefit of the bargain that we made in 1959 with this body.”

Although the first panel may not have expected questions, Murkowski allowed Cantwell to ask Walker his position on eliminating the deduction of state income taxes and block grants for Medicaid — two ideas championed by some Republicans as part of comprehensive tax reform. Alaska is one of seven states that does not levy a state income tax.

“We look at [Alaska] as part of the solution on the deficit,” Walker said, conceding that he is still evaluating a plan that calls for splitting revenues from royalties evenly with the federal government. “We see that certainly as interest in reducing the federal deficit, [and] I’m certainly interested in reducing the state deficit. That’s where my focus is today.”

Cantwell’s question drew a sharp rebuke from Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA). “Health care reform is not part of this,” he said. “Block granting Medicaid is not part of this. It can be a disinformation campaign put out there to obscure the truth. We will come back to health care reform, but that should not be spoken of here as if it is germane to the argument [on ANWR]. That is misleading to the American people.”

Tribes Divided

In the second panel, differing Alaska voices were heard. “To what end are you opening up the refuge?” asked Samuel Alexander, a member of the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich’in tribal government. “To what end will you destroy our way of life?

“You aren’t addressing climate change, which has been stressing our other food sources as well as stressing the caribou. You aren’t addressing our nation’s growing deficit; in fact, opening the refuge represents a drop in the bucket of our budget ills. You aren’t even addressing energy security…I fail to see how opening the refuge at a time when we are already a net exporter of energy provides us any geopolitical advantage. We are hard pressed to understand your reasoning behind opening the refuge.”

However, Matthew Rexford, tribal administrator for the village of Kaktovik and president of the Kaktovik Iñupiat Corp., countered that the oil and gas industry supports tribal communities by providing jobs, business opportunities and investment in infrastructure.

“Kaktovik-miut and the Arctic Iñupiat will not become conservation refugees,” Rexford said. “We do not approve of efforts to turn our homeland into one giant national park, which literally guarantees us a fate with no economy, no jobs, reduced subsistence and no hope for the future of our people.”

Markup Next Week?

Although the committee’s website does not currently show that a markup hearing has been scheduled, the prospect of holding such a hearing as early as Wednesday made some lawmakers, including Sen. Angus King (I-ME), uncomfortable.

“I don’t see how we can possibly make this decision without answering the fundamental questions of how many wells are we talking about, [and] how many miles of pipeline?” King told Murkowski during questioning of the second panel of witnesses. “We just can’t make that trade-off without having that data.”

Cantwell said she and her colleagues “feel very strongly that we want to see something and understand it before we vote on it. So it’s hard to believe that that would take place by next Wednesday and to understand the impact on the Interior Department. That’s the issue. What my colleague is saying is he wants to understand, from experts, what that impact is.”

Murkowski interrupted Cantwell midway through her comments.

“We’re certainly not going to be voting on anything that we don’t have in front of us,” Murkowski said. The hearing Thursday was “an opportunity for us to hear about the 1002 Area — something that this committee hasn’t had an opportunity to do in about seven years now.”