The Republicans have reached a deal on what The New York Times calls the “most sweeping tax rewrite in decades,” but the bill is also stuffed with provisions that having nothing to do with taxes. For instance, it would open up 1.5 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil drilling, ending a decades-long fight to do so. The refuge is one of the world’s largest bird nurseries and the main calving ground for one of the last large caribou herds in North America, but the state’s senior Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski, says this move “will provide economic growth and prosperity for our state and the nation.”
Allowing oil drilling in a wildlife reserve has nothing to do with cutting taxes, but the provision is included in the tax bill because of concerns over the federal deficit. Congressional analysts concluded last month that the GOP’s tax plan would add $1 trillion to the deficit; allowing oil companies to lease federal land for drilling would raise revenue to help offset that (just as repealing the Obamacare individual mandate, which is also in the bill, is expected to do). The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has said that oil production in the refuge could generate $1.1 billion in revenue for the government over the next decade.
But that revenue depends on private oil companies’ interest in doing so. Drilling in these remote areas carries increased danger for machine operators and wildlife, as well as spill risk. And with the current low price of oil, some argue that drilling in that precarious environment is not economically viable anyway. “We think there is almost no rationale for Arctic exploration,” one Goldman Sachs analyst recently said. “Immensely complex, expensive projects like the Arctic we think can move too high on the cost curve to be economically doable.” Which means that the government might not get anywhere near $1.1 billion in revenue from drilling in the ANWR—and that lost revenue is going to have to be found somewhere else.