On Election Night, as Republicans won control of both houses of Congress,Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski hoisted a chair above her head at an Anchorage victory party and shouted "I am the chairmaaaaan!"
As the senior ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Murkowski is poised to chair the panel beginning in January. Among her top priorities will be a push to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a 19 million acre reserve in northeast Alaska near the Arctic Sea.
"I don't think it's any big news that Senator Murkowski will support development of ANWR's coastal plain," Robert Dillon, spokesperson and senior advisor for Murkowski, told VICE News. "We're talking about the coastal plain, we're not talking about the wilderness. We're talking about the non-wilderness areas of ANWR."
The coastal plain covers 1.5 million acres along Alaska's North Slope. In 1980, the federal Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act set aside the area for drilling if Congress gives its blessing.
Oil and gas developers have been eager to gain access to the region's estimated 10.3 billion barrels of proven reserves. Prudhoe Bay, 60 miles west of ANWR, is already producing oil, providing evidence of the region's viability. Members of Congress have tried — and failed — to pass ANWR drilling bills for the past twenty years. Murkowski has previously pushed two bills — one that would allow drilling in the coastal plain and another that would allow horizontal drilling from Alaskan state land into the protected refuge.
In January, the committee will likely hold hearings on Murkowski's Energy 20/20 plan, which outlines her ideas for meeting the nation's energy needs. Dillon said the plan emphasizes increased domestic oil and gas development, boosting energy efficiency and fuel economy standards, and developing renewable sources like geothermal and hydroelectric.
Environmental groups have historically pushed back against any proposed drilling in ANWR and point out Murkowski's poor record on environmental protections. The League of Conservation Voters, an environmental advocacy group, gives Murkowski a twenty-one percent lifetime voting record on its National Environmental Scorecard.
Murkowski and proponents of drilling in ANWR claim that only 2000 acres will be affected by drilling.
"That's an estimate on what the infrastructure needs would be to develop on the coastal plain," Dillon told VICE News.
'The coastal plain is what we call the biological heart of the refuge.'
Chuck Clusen, director of the Alaska Project for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the estimate is way off.
"What they're trying to say is 'Oh, we're only going to disturb 2000 acres, that's nothing, nothing will get hurt'—and that's the farthest thing from the truth," Clusen told VICE News. "What they have done to claim that it's 2000 acres is they have gone around and counted only the amount of land that drill pads would be on."
He added: "My intention is to say the entirety of the area would be affected by drilling."
Clusen said pro-drilling estimates don't take into account constructing roads, gravel pits and infrastructure necessary to drill and move the oil. He pointed out that the 2000 acres are actually scattered across the coastal plain's 1.5 million acres.
"The coastal plain is what we call the biological heart of the refuge," Clusen said. "It has been called the American Serengeti."
The wild porcupine caribou herd, the largest in Alaska, migrates to that part of ANWR each year to give birth to a new generation. The area has the densest number of polar bears that den onshore anywhere in Alaska. There are grizzly bears, black bears, arctic foxes, and over 135 types of birds. Offshore, there are bowhead whales, beluga whales, and walruses.
To get a sense of what could happen, said Clusen, one should look at the situation in Prudhoe Bay, where there were 4,530 spills between 1996 and 2004.
"It's a pretty intense industrialization," Clusen said. "The first time I flew over it looked like flying over Gary, Indiana."
Murkowski's spokesperson dismissed claims that drilling on ANWR could affect more than a million acres, citing the unknowns in the regulatory process that would shape how drilling might proceed.
"Any claims on exactly what it would look like are impossible to make at this point," Dillon said. "You don't know what the terms are going to be that are going to be set by federal regulators, right? That's why we have the permitting process to begin with."
Follow Shelby Kinney-Lang on Twitter: @ShelbKL