The Arctic Refuge Lease Sale Limitation, Explained

(This piece originally appeared in The Hill.) How the House of Representatives Interior Department spending bill holds the Trump administration accountable for 2017 promises. 

(Above: Muskox hug the Brooks Range in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: Florian Schulz / www.florianshulz.org)

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed its spending bill for the U.S. Department of the Interior for fiscal year 2020. The bill advanced out of the House Appropriations Committee and passed the full House 227-194 with $13.8 billion budgeted for the agency, including increases in funding for conservation, public lands and wildlife management, but also containing revenue language related to the proposed Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil and gas leasing program and aimed at protecting American citizens. The House should pass its appropriations bill with this language intact, and if their colleagues in the Senate truly care about not only preserving our public lands but protecting American taxpayers as well, they will do the same.

The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act

Two years ago, the widely opposed Trump tax cuts mortgaged the future of seniors and working families in order to hand massive tax breaks to Wall Street, corporations and the wealthiest 1 percent. At the same time, oil industry allies in Congress were able to circumvent normal legislative channels and take advantage of an expedited legislative process to include an Arctic Refuge drilling program in the tax bill. They knew that winning support for such a controversial measure in an above-board process would otherwise have been impossible.

The tax bill also took the unprecedented step of making oil leasing and development one of the official purposes of the Arctic Refuge — no other national wildlife refuge has oil and gas as a statutory purpose — undercutting the integrity of the Arctic Refuge and setting a dangerous precedent for America’s entire National Wildlife Refuge System.

When the unpopular tax bill passed, the Trump administration and its allies defended the equally unpopular Arctic drilling provision by claiming that opening the Arctic Refuge to leasing would generate billions for the U.S. treasury. What the language of the Interior appropriations bill does now is simply require Interior to set a minimum bid capable of generating the revenues promised by the tax bill — the agency can only move forward with a lease sale if it ensures the sale raises at least half of the $1 billion agreed to in the FY2018 budget resolution. By requiring a floor on what companies must pay to lease a piece of the Arctic Refuge’s fragile coastal plain, this provision holds the Trump administration accountable to its own promises.

False Promises and Faulty Math

Let’s be clear that we believe leasing and development should never occur in the Arctic Refuge, and Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee’s Interior-Environment Subcommittee, summed it up succinctly following committee markup of this year’s Interior bill: “I oppose opening ANWR, but now that it’s in the tax bill, we must ensure the American taxpayer is protected.”

From the very beginning, the stated reason for having a federal oil and gas program in the Arctic Refuge was always to raise revenue for the federal treasury. There was never any real evidence to back up the billion-dollar claim, and in fact many experts at the time pointed out that raising the proposed revenue would depend on the highly unlikely scenario of leasing nearly every acre of the coastal plain at sky-high prices. What is illuminating, however, has been the reaction and artificial offense taken by the architects of the Arctic Refuge leasing program to this Interior bill language.

Following the House markup, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the driving force pushing for Arctic Refuge development, was quoted as saying, “I think what they’ve set up is something that’s designed to kill exploration in ANWR.”

And in a letter to Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, the White House Office of Management and Budget wrote:

In addition, section 118 prohibits DOI from using funds to conduct a lease sale in the Coastal Plain (1002 area) of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, unless that sale meets arbitrary national minimum bid criteria. This restriction imposes unnecessary and unrealistic restrictions on leasing in an area that the Congress has already authorized.

Think about that for a second. The driving force behind the leasing program, Lisa Murkowski, admits that requiring minimum bids today to meet revenue she herself defended two years ago would “kill exploration” in the Arctic Refuge. The Trump administration has put in writing that it believes the projections used to sell Congress and the public on allowing oil development were “arbitrary” and “unnecessary and unrealistic.” As a reminder, the ONLY reason an Arctic Refuge leasing program was able to be included in the reconciliation process in the first places was as a billion-dollar offset for tax cuts.

The Bottom Line

Call it lying to the American public, call it misleading, but whatever you call it, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been opened to the risk of a massive oil drilling operation based on willful dishonesty. Experts didn’t buy the numbers then, and they still don’t today. And now we know Murkowski and the Trump administration never really believed their own promises either.