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How did this Alaska wildlife refuge migrate into the GOP tax bill?

Part of the GOP tax overhaul tax bill that has not gotten a lot of attention is the possibility of opening up a pristine and long-protected part of Alaska to oil extraction. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is 19 millions acres of rich ecosystem. Why are lawmakers talking about drilling now? William Brangham joins Miles O’Brien to take a closer look.

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  • Miles O’Brien:

    Let's turn now to our continuing coverage of the Republican tax bill.

    We have talked about some of its other impacts that go well beyond the matter of taxes. Tonight, we look at a particular part of the Senate bill that has not gotten a lot of attention, the possibility of opening up a pristine and long-protected part of Alaska to oil extraction.

    William Brangham has been following this. He joins me now.

    William, we're talking about ANWR, the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. It's a beautiful place.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right.

    It is supposedly one of — I think it's been called the Serengeti of America. It's 19 million acres, the northeast corner of Alaska, right up against the sea and the Canadian border.

    It was designated as a wildlife refuge in 1980. And, by all measures, it is this incredibly lush, rich ecosystem, migratory birds, grizzly bears, musk oxen, fish.

    Apparently, the marquee species up there is called the porcupine caribou. And they do this incredible migration, 2,700 miles across Canada, to give birth right on the coast there, on the beaches there.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    I think people imagine just ice. And it is rich with wildlife. I have had the great opportunity to be up there, and the amount of wildlife you see is rather extraordinary.

    In 1980, it was protected. Why are we talking about drilling now?

  • William Brangham:

    Well, it's believed that there is oil under the ground. That's obviously the biggest issue.

    The estimates range — it's five to 15 billion barrels of oil, they believe, are under the ground there. Oil companies have long wanted to drill there. And the Alaska delegation has often said, we need these jobs, we need these resources, and we can do it safely.

    Don Young has been saying this. Lisa Murkowski has been saying this, Ted Stevens, the former senator there. Murkowski, in particular, if you remember, her father was governor and senator of the state, was one of the early proponents.

    And the Murkowski family has been pushing this for a very long time.

    In fact, let's listen to Lisa Murkowski. This is her recently talking about how we can drill and protect this beautiful landscape.

  • Sen. Lisa Murkowski:

    We will not sacrifice the caribou, the polar bear or the migratory birds for the sake of development, but we also recognize that that is not a choice that we face here.

    And no matter how hard some try to make this an either/or proposition, there is no question that development and environmental protection can and do exist in Alaska.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    So, on the one hand, people up there care very deeply about those caribou herds. On the other hand, this is a big economic driver for Alaska, obviously.

    So, what's the reaction among the local tribes, the Inuit, the indigenous people?

  • William Brangham:

    Well, the environmental groups would have you believe that all the Native groups are against it. And it's not really clear that that's true.

    The Gwich'in people, who live closest to the area that we're talking about, they subsist largely on that caribou. They eat the caribou. They use the fur. It's a big part of their culture and their history. And they're worried that, if you start drilling in this area, the caribou will not show up and their livelihood will take a huge hit.

    The Inupiat, who also live in the area, and who have also seen some benefits economically from the development at the Prudhoe Bay, which is the biggest oil field just to the west of this area, they think, we like the jobs idea. We like there possibly being money.

    So it's a mixed bag of opinion up there.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    How did the caribou migrate their way into this tax bill?

  • William Brangham:

    Doesn't totally make sense. Right? Oil and taxes are not usually a mix here.

    To simplify this, Congress gets to decide in these reconciliations what is germane. And Lisa Murkowski, as we talked about, she got the CBO to demonstrate that a billion dollars could be earned if two leases were sold over the next 10 years to drill in ANWR.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Ah, there's revenue there.

  • William Brangham:

    Because there is revenue, then they can put it in this bill. And that's how they do it.

    Now, environmentalists and Democrats say this is an absolutely wrong way, that if you actually tried to stand up drilling in ANWR as its own piece of legislation, it would never survive, and they hate the way this is going down.

    Let's listen to Sheldon Whitehouse. The Democrat of Rhode Island has been very strong about this.

  • Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse:

    We're technically here today for the ministerial purpose of combining the tax bill with a provision to allow drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, which has nothing to do with taxes or the budget, but will help round up a Republican Senate vote.

    This whole process confirms once again that our budget process is completely broken.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Given the success of oil exploration elsewhere, particularly with fracking, is this oil that's really needed? After all, it's very expensive to get it up there.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right.

    If you take the median estimate of what's in the ground up there, it's about 10 billion barrels of oil in the ground. The U.S. uses about seven billion a year, so it's a considerable amount of oil. Again, no one really knows if that's the real amount up there. And oil companies want to go there. They think the calculus is right.

    Environmentalists argue the risk for such a pristine area is too risky to take, given all the other available sources of energy we do have.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    William Brangham, thank you very much.

  • William Brangham:

    My pleasure.

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