Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Bucks County, is cosponsoring a bill reintroduced Thursday to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a vast Alaskan wilderness that former President Donald Trump sought to open to drilling.
On Trump’s last day in office, his administration, under the Bureau of Land Management, formally issued leases for oil and gas exploration on nine tracts within the 19.6 million-acre refuge. Environmental organizations across the country vigorously opposed the leases on land that’s prime habitat for polar bears, caribou, and other wildlife.
The new leases would still need permitting, and President Joe Biden signed an executive order on his first day in office placing a temporary moratorium on oil and gas activity in the refuge.
The House and Senate both on Thursday reintroduced versions of the Arctic Refuge Protection Act. The House version was introduced by Rep. Jared Huffman (D., Calif.), chair of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife. Huffman was joined by Fitzpatrick as co-lead author in the bipartisan legislation.
Environmentalists believe the bipartisan bill will have a much better chance under the new, Democratically controlled Congress that began work in January. However, it was not clear when, or if, a vote would come. And with 60 votes needed for most bills to pass the Senate, the measure might still face a difficult path in a Senate split 50-50.
The bill would protect the Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain and prevent oil and gas exploration and development by designating it as wilderness — the highest level of protection. If the bill passes, it is not immediately clear what impact it would have on the last-minute leases by the Trump administration.
Regardless, local environmentalists were thrilled, as millions of birds migrate through the refuge annually.
“Permanent protection for the Arctic National Refuge’s coastal plain is long overdue, plain and simple,” said Stephanie Wein, a conservation advocate for the nonprofit organization PennEnvironment. “We thank Representative Fitzpatrick and all the bill’s sponsors for taking the long view. We should permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”
Fitzpatrick, who represents a Bucks County-based swing district, has long worked to burnish his credentials as a relative moderate within the GOP, including on environmental issues where much of his party is more conservative.
As most Republicans have been wiped out in the Philadelphia suburbs, he is among the most prominent of those who have held on, in large part because he has been able to win crossover votes and show stronger suburban appeal than Trump. Fitzpatrick often stresses his work with Democrats, though liberal critics say his bills too often make for positive press releases rather than action.
“Our Arctic Refuge is a national treasure, and it is imperative for us to protect it,” Fitzpatrick said in a statement. “I am glad to once again co-lead The Arctic Refuge Protection Act this Congress because taking care of our environment should not be a political issue.”
Said Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League: “We applaud Reps. Jared Huffman and Brian Fitzpatrick and Senator Ed Markey for this bipartisan bill to repeal the oil leasing mandate and safeguard the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”