WASHINGTON — Oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would create jobs and enhance energy security, while maintaining important environmental protections and conserving caribou and other wildlife, Alaska's governor and congressional delegation said Thursday.
But a leader of an Alaska Native tribe told a Senate hearing that oil development would threaten the refuge's pristine coastal plain, "the sacred place where life begins" and home to caribou that provide the tribe's subsistence.
Sam Alexander of the Gwich'in Nation said tribe members "are the caribou people. Caribou are how we survive ... and how we define ourselves."
Drilling in the Arctic refuge would "destroy our way of life," he said.
A budget measure approved by the Republican-controlled Congress allows lawmakers to pursue legislation allowing oil and gas exploration in the remote refuge on a majority vote.
At a hearing Thursday, Gov. Bill Walker said opening a small section of the 19.6 million-acre site to drilling would provide billions of dollars in revenue to Alaskans and the rest of the nation, create thousands of jobs and "significantly improve our national security and international influence while fully protecting the wildlife and environment of the coastal plain."
Walker, an independent, said that after 50 years of "successful and safe development" of oil on lands near the Arctic refuge, along with "decades of advancement in both oil and gas technology and environmental mitigation measures, it is time that Congress acts to honor the longstanding promise in these areas available for the benefit of Alaska, the country and the world."
Alaska's all-Republican congressional delegation agreed. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and veteran Rep. Don Young said drilling in the Arctic refuge would bolster American energy production, economic growth and national security.
Murkowski chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and led Thursday's hearing on the drilling plan.
Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, senior Democrat on the energy panel, said drilling was not worth the risks to a fragile ecosystem that serves as important habitat for polar bears, caribou and migratory birds.
The Arctic refuge is "one of the most pristine areas of the United States," Cantwell said, and sacrificing it "for oil that we don't need ... is not worth it."
The wildlife refuge has been the focus of a political fight for more than three decades. President Bill Clinton vetoed a GOP plan to allow drilling in the refuge in 1995, and Cantwell-led Democrats defeated a similar GOP plan in 2005.
The Trump administration and congressional Republicans are pushing to revive the drilling plan as a way to help pay for proposed tax cuts promised by President Donald Trump. The GOP-approved budget includes $1 billion in revenue from drilling leases over 10 years.
Democrats scoffed at that claim, saying the plan would generate far less revenue at a time when oil prices are down and production in the lower 48 states, especially Texas and North Dakota, is booming. Royal Dutch Shell abandoned an oil exploration program in the Arctic Ocean in 2015 amid concerns that lower global oil prices made drilling in the remote region a risky investment.
Greg Sheehan, acting director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said the Trump administration believes the drilling plan would bolster the nation's energy independence and national security, provide economic opportunity for Alaskans and "provide much-needed revenue to both the state of Alaska and the federal government."
Alexander, the Gwich'in Nation representative, said talk of balancing oil development and environmental protections rang hollow. "Why is the balance being put on the backs of my people?" he asked.
Cantwell and Murkowski generally work well together, but disagreement over the Arctic refuge has tested that good will. Cantwell said at the end of Thursday's hearing that Murkowski had "stacked" the session with speakers in favor of drilling. Murkowski responded that the selection of speakers reflected the party in the majority.
"In no way did I feel it was stacked," Murkowski told reporters, noting that three of 12 speakers at the nearly five-hour hearing oppose drilling.
Murkowski said she hopes to move quickly on a pro-drilling bill, with a committee vote likely within two weeks.