Arctic Drilling Foes Target GOP Swing Votes on Tax Reform

Environmental groups want to ensure that language allowing ANWR drilling doesn’t get added to the Republican tax package.

Rep. Bruce Poliquin speaks at a news conference at Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine on Sept. 29.
AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty
Brian Dabbs
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Brian Dabbs
Nov. 22, 2017, 12:01 a.m.

Environmental groups are piggybacking on internal GOP discord over the state and local tax deduction to try to fell Arctic drilling in a broad tax-code overhaul.

At least two of those anti-drilling advocates are banding together to target House Republicans in high-tax, politically moderate districts, hoping to turn public concerns about tax hikes and environmental stewardship into “no” votes when a final tax-reform package hits the House floor. Neither the current House nor Senate GOP tax-reform packages include language permitting drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but proponents hope to add it in eventually.

The League of Conservation Voters released polling early Wednesday showing widespread opposition to drilling in ANWR in several of those districts. The House and Senate paved the way for that drilling in budget bills last month that also teed up tax reform.

That release comes on the heels of a $500,000 ad buy Tuesday against the drilling. The Wilderness Society campaign is aimed at 15 House Republicans, mostly representatives of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania districts.

Representatives of the environmental groups are hoping that public opposition to both those policy areas will cause those members to outright oppose the tax bill or force Republican leadership to strip the ANWR language.

“We see [ANWR] as a vote-loser rather than a vote-getter on the House side,” Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director at the League of Conservation Voters, said. “Republican leaders are going through a process to find 50 votes in the Senate and 218 in the House. Arctic drilling could be one of the issues that leaves them short.”

The Global Strategy Group teamed up with Bellwether Research and Consulting to conduct the polling of behalf of Taurel’s group.

The polling was conducted in eight Republican districts, five of which are represented by lawmakers who voted “yes” on the tax bill. That survey shows residents in Bruce Poliquin’s Maine district oppose Arctic drilling by 40 points, while residents in Ryan Costello’s Pennsylvania district oppose the drilling by 27 points. Both those lawmakers voted “yes” on the broad tax bill.

The Wilderness Society ad campaign targets Costello, as well as Brian Mast of Florida, Patrick Meehan and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, and other “yes” votes in similar districts.

A spokesman for that advocacy group, Tony Iallonardo, said the ad buy is the group’s largest since President Obama took office in 2009. “We don’t have to flip every district,” Iallonardo said. Opposition to ANWR “creates pressure to kill the rider or in concert with other controversial provisions, kill the underlying bill.”

The League of Conservation Voters has spent $750,000 on digital and television advertisements since mid-October on the drilling.

Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick, along with five other House Republicans, publicly opposed ANWR drilling as part of a budget-and-tax process earlier this year. Among those lawmakers, Washington’s Dave Reichert and Minnesota’s Erik Paulsen signed off on the House tax bill last week.

“The effort to open the Arctic Refuge to development is a long-debated and highly controversial issue that we do not believe belongs in a responsible budgeting process,” those lawmakers wrote in June. “The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—first protected by President Dwight Eisenhower over 55 years ago—is one of the last pristine natural environments remaining in the United States.”

House members passed their tax bill, which didn’t feature ANWR language, with a comfortable 227 votes in favor.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee signed off on including ANWR drilling in tax reform. That decision fell on a largely party-line vote. So far, the ANWR debate has been restricted to the Senate during the tax legislative process, with long-time proponent Lisa Murkowski, the Alaskan senator who chairs the energy committee, leading the charge.

The Senate Finance Committee approved a tax bill last week that did not include ANWR language, so supporters would need to add that provision via an amendment on the Senate floor.

Murkowski says responsible drilling will benefit Alaskans and the federal purse at no expense to the environment.

Congress has never opened up ANWR to drilling despite a range of close calls. President Clinton vetoed a budget bill in the 104th Congress that would have opened up a section of the refuge for commercial drilling. Low oil prices are causing skepticism over commercial interest in the refuge, but some business advocates have said recently they expect leases.

Environmental advocates and nearly all Democrats oppose the drilling. The region is a key sanctuary for caribou, polar bears, and a wide range of flora and other fauna.

The Wilderness Society will also release $250,000 in advertisements in Arizona and Maine this week. Those targets highlight traditional ANWR opposition from Sens. John McCain and Susan Collins. The Trump administration has supported ANWR, but McCain and Collins have bucked the party in several high-profile instances this Congress.

Senate passage of the tax package with ANWR language is far from certain, despite the administration’s call for a final bill by the end of 2017. Still, the environmental groups are continuing to target House districts, wagering a higher likelihood of success in the lower chamber of the Capitol.

“The two tax bills are a different product. There’s different politics and different provisions. It’s not at all clear that the Senate bill can be sent over to the House and passed, regardless of the Arctic drilling,” Taurel said.

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