In the Blink of an Eye, a Hunt for Oil Threatens Pristine Alaska

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Ms. Murkowski told reporters within hours of Mr. Trump’s victory that she would renew the push for legislation. That set in motion a furious effort to win congressional approval and position the Interior Department to carry a plan forward.

A flight from Alaska’s central Arctic coast to Fairbanks is a straight shot. But when Mr. Zinke and Ms. Murkowski flew the route in May last year, just a few months into the Interior secretary’s tenure, the pilot made a wide detour to the east.

Below them was the vast 1002 Area, extending between the Brooks Range and the Beaufort Sea, still off limits to oil and gas exploration but now within their political sights.

A few days later in Anchorage, Ms. Murkowski introduced Mr. Zinke at an oil and gas conference. “The only path for energy dominance is a path through the great state of Alaska,” Mr. Zinke told the group.

Seven months later, Congress voted to open the coastal plain to exploration.

Getting approval in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives was not an issue. But in the Senate, Ms. Murkowski needed a bill that could survive a likely filibuster. The solution was to characterize oil exploration as a revenue raiser — with a target of $1 billion for the Treasury over 10 years — and insert it into Mr. Trump’s tax overhaul legislation.

The oil provision authorized two lease sales of drilling rights for at least 400,000 acres each, directing the “Secretary of Interior, acting through the Bureau of Land Management,” to oversee the development. The innocuous-sounding bureaucratic language was intended to fast-track the effort by marginalizing skeptics in another Interior agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service.

At a hearing, current and former Alaska politicians spoke in favor of opening the refuge, as did representatives of two Native corporations, including A.S.R.C. Several A.S.R.C. executives stayed in Washington to press for the measure, part of a push that saw the corporation’s lobbying expenditures nearly double to $590,000 in 2017 from $320,000 the previous year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group.

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