For decades, Republicans have been trying to allow oil drilling in certain parts of the Arctic National Widlife Refuge (ANWR). So far their attempts have been unsuccessful, but on Thursday the Senate voted against an amendment that would have blocked arctic drilling.
The amendment was proposed by Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell, and would have stripped the budget resolution of a measure that pushes for drilling in the ANWR. The Senate voted 52 to 48 against Cantwell's amendment.
While the budget resolution, which passed along party lines, doesn't explicitly call for arctic drilling, it does instruct the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to raise $1 billion in federal revenue.
And one of the easiest and fastest ways to generate that kind of money? Tapping the untouched lands of the Arctic refuge for oil.
Cantwell's amendment would have removed the instruction that the committee find ways to create more federal revenue. Now, opponents of arctic drilling are worried that the committee chairwoman Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski will use the directive to justify drilling in the ANWR.
The move would be made possible by a 1980 Conservation Act, which expanded the ANWR's reach with one stipulation: that section 1002 of the law put aside 1.5 million-acres of coastal land for research and potentially even oil and gas drilling.
"Yes — opening the non-wilderness 1002 area to development is an option to meet the instructions to the energy committee. But it is not the only option. But I will tell you it is the best option. And it is on the table," Murkowski said.
The ANWR is home to a diversity of wildlife and is considered "the sacred place where life begins" by Alaska's native Gwich'in people. If drilling proceeds, environmentalists are worried that the caribou that have sustained the Gwich'in people for centuries will be destroyed forever.
"The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the most pristine areas of the United States and we have been protecting it for decades for a reason," Cantwell said before the vote.
Even if the lands are opened to drilling, there is some evidence to suggest it would fall short of the Committee's $1 billion directive. In fact, the Center for American Progress predicts arctic drilling would only add $37.5 million to the Treasury's coffers.
Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan came to Murkowski's defence before the vote, arguing that he and the chairwoman "care a lot more about the environment, the wildlife, the pristine wilderness in our great amazing state than any other member of this body."
"Don't believe these doomsday scenarios. Don't believe the misinformed commentary," he said.
But Lydia Weiss, a government relations director for the Wilderness Society disagrees.
"This is the most dire threat the Arctic refuge has ever faced," she said.
"This entire administration has made clear that they have one use for our shared public lands, and that is taking them from the people and giving them to their billionaire oil industry friends. With a Congress that is all too eager to abide, the fate of the refuge is really in peril."