It was only four votes, but it represented the Alaska Legislature’s biggest opposition to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 12 years.
On Wednesday morning, the Alaska House of Representatives voted 31-4 in favor of House Joint Resolution 5, a sternly worded letter that asks the U.S. Congress to open ANWR’s coastal plain to oil and gas development.
HJR 5 has no binding power and must be approved by the Alaska Senate before being sent to Congress. Despite its lack of authority, HJR 5 is notable this year because Republicans control the presidency and both houses of Congress, creating conditions especially fertile for a repeal of the prohibitions against drilling in ANWR.
Though oil prices remain low, creating an economic roadblock against offshore drilling, ANWR is considered relatively cheap to drill and explore because it is close to existing infrastructure and is onshore.
The four “no” votes were all Democrats: Rep. Justin Parish, D-Juneau; Rep. Zach Fansler, D-Bethel; Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage; and Rep. David Guttenberg, D-Fairbanks.
The lawmakers voting “yes” included Republicans, Democrats, and all of the House’s independents.
HJR 5 was drafted by Rep. Dean Westlake, D-Kotzebue, whose district includes ANWR and the North Slope.
“I wouldn’t be offering this if I didn’t think it could be done safely,” Westlake said.
Westlake has previously said he considers HJR 5 a jobs proposal, and jobs are the most important thing to his constituents.
In the Alaska Legislature, no issue has had support as consistent as ANWR drilling.
The last Legislature that failed to pass an ANWR resolution was the 18th Alaska Legislature, which met in 1993 and 1994. The 25th Legislature almost broke the streak, but the Senate, meeting in special session in August 2008, passed its own resolution. The House didn’t pass one that year.
While Arctic drilling might be a divisive issue elsewhere, it isn’t in Alaska: Each resolution has passed by wide margins, and this year’s was no different.
In 2015, no legislator voted against the resolution.
In most years, there have been only one or two objectors. Former Rep. Sharon Cissna, D-Anchorage, was the most consistent objector, and was frequently joined by Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, and in the Senate by Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau.
This year’s four dissenters tied the four “no” votes cast in 2005.
Among the dissenters that year was Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage. On Wednesday, he changed his mind, voting in favor of drilling.
Though it would take years ─ if not decades ─ for oil produced in ANWR to begin producing revenue for the state of Alaska, Gara said the state’s $2.7 billion deficit weighed on his mind.
Parish, one of the dissenters, agreed that the deficit is a problem, but because ANWR is federal land and because he believes the state’s oil taxes are too low, he couldn’t support the resolution right now.
“It’s our constitutional responsibility to secure the maximum benefit of our resources … and until we address the systematic problems which we have built up, I could not in good conscience support opening up an area in which we’d get potentially zero revenue during the peak years of production,” he said.
Contact Empire reporter James Brooks at email@example.com or 419-7732.