Democrats on US House committee move anti-drilling ANWR bill

Rep. Jared Huffman speaks to reporters at an anti-drilling event in December, 2018. He sponsored a bill to block oil development in the Arctic Refuge. Photo by Liz Ruskin.

A bill that would close the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling cleared the U.S. House Resources Committee Wednesday on a party-line vote. The bill is unlikely to become law, but the session offered Congress members a chance to make their best case, for or against drilling, and some did so loudly.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., described his bill as merely reversing a part of the 2017 tax bill that opened the refuge to drilling.

“It does nothing to go after the existing jobs in oil and gas,” Huffman said. “It simply says you can’t expand into this one special place.”

Huffman said what is often said about the coastal plain of the refuge: It is important to caribou, and to the Gwich’in people who rely on them.

“Surprise, surprise surprise,” said Alaska Congressman Don Young. He said he’s heard it all before.

U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska (Still from video by Bob Laurie/360 North)

“It was like an echo chamber,” Young complained. “Same words I’ve heard for many, many years, that mean nothing.”

Young said he’s not getting overly worked up about this anti-drilling bill because, as he put it, “there’s no way in bejesus” the Senate will pass it. He seemed to alternate between exasperation and boredom.

“I listen to the same horse s–t all the time,” he said, when given more time to make his case.

One argument against drilling that’s relatively new to the debate is climate change. Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif., raised it.

“We’ve got to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions in our country and across the planet in order to avoid up to 38 trillion – trillion, with a “T” – trillion dollars of economic damage to this planet, this century,” Levin said.

Maybe it was the emphasis in Levin’s voice, but just after Levin spoke, Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., called for cooler heads to prevail.

“We can sit here and invent crap, or we can look at the facts!” Graves said in defense of ANWR drilling.

He spoke at high volume, shouting his plea to debate the issue with less emotion.

Lorraine Netro, center, thanks Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Calif. Netro is from Old Crow, Yukon, and is a board member of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, a group that formed in 1988 to oppose drilling in ANWR.

“ANWR has become this emotional issue. it’s not based on merit! It’s become an emotional issue,” Graves lamented. “Most of you, in fact 99 percent of the you in the room have never been there. You can’t even frickin’ visit the place. Because it’s a frozen tundra! It’s not mountains! It’s not trails!”

A group of Gwich’in opponents of drilling watched from the back of the room. For them, the issue IS emotional. Bernadette Demientieff said afterward it was painful to hear Graves describing land her people consider sacred as a wasteland.

“I mean, that’s insulting,” Demientieff said. “This is our home. This is where our ancestors migrated for thousands of years.”

The bill to block drilling in the Arctic Refuge passed out of committee by  a vote of 22-14. With Democrats in the majority, its chances of passing the full House are good, but as Congressman Young said, it’s hard to imagine it passing the Senate.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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