Obama Proposes to Declare ANWR Area as Wilderness

The move rekindles fight over oil drilling on Alaska’s coastal plain.

The Kongakut Valley in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
National Journal
Ben Geman and Dan Berman
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Ben Geman Dan Berman
Jan. 25, 2015, 6:50 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Barack Obama will ask Con­gress to de­clare over 12 mil­lion acres of Alaska’s Arc­tic Na­tion­al Wild­life Refuge as wil­der­ness, he an­nounced Sunday, re­kind­ling a dec­ades-old fight over oil drilling there.

In a video mes­sage, Obama called the por­tions of AN­WR he wants to pro­tect as “pristine, un­dis­turbed” and “very fra­gile.” He asked the GOP Con­gress to pro­tect the area “as a wil­der­ness so we can make sure this amaz­ing won­der is pro­tec­ted for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.”

The de­bate over oil drilling in AN­WR was a main­stay as Re­pub­lic­ans held Con­gress from the mid-1990s un­til the Demo­crats won the House and Sen­ate in 2006, and was a cent­ral part of gov­ern­ment shut­down fights between Con­gress and Pres­id­ent Bill Clin­ton.

The plan was first re­por­ted Sunday morn­ing by the Wash­ing­ton Post.

The pro­pos­al takes dir­ect aim at Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the new chair­wo­man of both Sen­ate En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee and the Ap­pro­pri­ations sub­pan­el that con­trols the In­teri­or De­part­ment’s budget.

“What’s com­ing is a stun­ning at­tack on our sov­er­eignty and our abil­ity to de­vel­op a strong eco­nomy that al­lows us, our chil­dren and our grand­chil­dren to thrive,” Murkowski said in a state­ment. “It’s clear this ad­min­is­tra­tion does not care about us, and sees us as noth­ing but a ter­rit­ory. The prom­ises made to us at state­hood, and since then, mean ab­so­lutely noth­ing to them. I can­not un­der­stand why this ad­min­is­tra­tion is will­ing to ne­go­ti­ate with Ir­an, but not Alaska. But we will not be run over like this. We will fight back with every re­source at our dis­pos­al.”

Al­though con­gres­sion­al ac­tion to de­clare the area as wil­der­ness is un­likely, the In­teri­or De­part­ment plans to be­gin man­aging the area as wil­der­ness, Murkowski’s of­fice, which was briefed by the ad­min­is­tra­tion on Fri­day, said.

The In­teri­or De­part­ment also plans to with­draw areas of the Arc­tic Ocean from oil and gas leases in its new five year oil and gas drilling plan, “which will ef­fect­ively ban de­vel­op­ment in large swaths of the Chuk­chi and Beaufort seas,” Murkowski’s of­fice said.

The new pro­tec­tions in Alaska fol­low Obama’s de­cision in Decem­ber to in­def­in­itely ex­tend a drilling ban in Bris­tol Bay off Alaska’s south­ern coast.

In­teri­or did not com­ment Sunday on re­stric­tions in the up­com­ing 2017-2022 off­shore oil-and-gas leas­ing plan.

Oil gi­ants Shell, Cono­co­Phil­lips and Statoil hold drilling leases in Arc­tic wa­ters off Alaska’s north­ern coast, a re­gion that In­teri­or es­tim­ates could con­tain more than 23 bil­lion bar­rels of re­cov­er­able oil.

Shell has been the most ag­gress­ive in seek­ing to ex­plore for oil in the U.S. Arc­tic. But ma­jor mis­haps dur­ing its ini­tial de­vel­op­ment at­tempt in 2012, the col­lapse in oil prices that’s crimp­ing in­dustry spend­ing, and un­cer­tainty about the reg­u­lat­ory status of its leases have left ques­tions about when the com­pany will re­sume ef­forts to drill there. Shell has filed a scaled-back plan with reg­u­lat­ors that’s fo­cused only on the Chuk­chi Sea.

Robert Dillon, a spokes­man for Murkowski, said he did not ex­pect In­teri­or to out­right block drilling in tracts of the Arc­tic seas that have already been leased to en­ergy com­pan­ies. But he said the up­com­ing re­stric­tions could non­ethe­less hinder de­vel­op­ment, de­pend­ing on how it af­fects is­sues like move­ment of ves­sels through the area.

“There is a pos­sib­il­ity it could im­pact ex­ist­ing leases. We just don’t know,” he said.

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