Posted with permission from The Washington Times

Republicans took a major step forward early  Saturday in their decades-long fight to open a piece of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

Included as part of the sweeping tax reform bill passed by the Senate in a 51-to-49 vote is a highly controversial provision to allow energy exploration in a 1.5 million-acre swath of ANWR known as the "1002 area," which lies along the coast. In total, ANWR spans more than 19 million acres.

The drilling provision was seen as key to getting Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican, on board with the tax bill.

"Opening the 1002 Area and tax reform both stand on their own, but combining them into the same bill, and then successfully passing that bill, makes this a great day to be an Alaskan," she said in a statement after the measures passed. "I thank all of the senators who spent time learning about our opportunities and needs, and who joined us  tonight in voting for Alaska. We are grateful for their support and eager to take the next steps for this pro-jobs, pro-growth, and pro-energy legislation."

Drilling in ANWR has become of the most high-profile fights in history between energy advocates and environmentalists. Those who favor oil drilling say only a small portion of the pristine area will be affected, and that exploration can be done safely; environmentalists maintain that opening any piece of ANWR to drilling sets a dangerous precedent, and they contend that an ecologically disastrous spill is inevitable.

The issue has split Republicans. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine has previously voted against ANWR drilling, as has Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Both supported the measure  Saturday.

There's also notable Republican opposition in the House, which has already passed its own tax measure without an ANWR provision.

Ahead of  Saturday's vote, a dozen House Republicans wrote to House Speaker and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urging them to remove ANWR drilling from any tax-reform efforts, arguing that there's simply no need to drill in such a sensitive area.

"After years of debate, the Arctic Refuge stands as a symbol of our nation's strong and enduring legacy," reads the letter, signed by Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Rep. Dave Reichert of Minnesota and other Republicans. "Any development footprint in the Refuge stands to disrupt this fragile, critically important landscape."

Environmental groups vowed to continue their opposition, and a host of lawsuits are expected if the provision is signed into law by President Trump.

"Sen. Murkowski's big sellout to the oil industry must be stopped. An international treasure and America's conservation legacy are at stake. We've been fighting to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for more than 30 years. We won't let it end like this," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of the environmental group Defenders of Wildlife.