The Obama administration will propose setting aside the 1.4 million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as wilderness, according to individuals briefed on the plan, a move that will spark a fierce battle with the new Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman, Lisa Murkowski, and other Alaska Republicans.
The announcement, which could come as early as Sunday, is just the first in a series of decisions the Interior Department will make in the coming week that will affect the state’s oil and gas production. The department will also put part of the Arctic Ocean off limits to drilling as part of a five-year leasing plan it will issue this week and is considering whether to impose additional limits on oil and gas production in parts of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
While Congress would have to approve any new wilderness designation, Interior will immediately begin managing the iconic area under the highest level of protection the federal government can offer. Democrats and Republicans have fought for 35 years over how to manage ANWR, which boasts significant petroleum reserves but also provides critical habitat for calving caribou, millions of migrating birds, polar bears and other Arctic wildlife.
“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,” said Murkowski, who spoke to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell about the department’s plan during a brief phone call Friday, in a statement. “It’s clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory. … 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.”
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, said in a statement he may be forced to accelerate oil and gas permitting on state lands to compensate for the new federal restrictions.
“Having just given to Alaskans the State of the State and State of the Budget addresses, it’s clear that our fiscal challenges in both the short and long term would benefit significantly from increased oil production,” Walker said, adding that most of the roughly 40 billion barrels of the state’s untapped reserves are in federal areas where oil and gas activity is blocked or restricted.
Environmental leaders, however, described the wilderness proposal as a prudent measure rooted in a long-term view of the region’s future. The Refuge’s coastal plain lies north of the jagged peaks of the Brooks Range, between the mountains and the sea. Polar bears, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, den there in winter, birth their cubs and nurse them until spring; it serves as the species’ most important denning habitat along America’s Arctic coast. In addition to serving as calving ground for the Porcupine caribou herd, it is home to other mammals, including grizzly bears, musk oxen and wolves.
“By recognizing the incredible wilderness and habitat values for species such as polar bear and caribou, the Fish and Wildlife Service has taken a tremendous step to preserve one of the wildest places in North America — the Arctic Refuge — for future generations,” said Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society, in a statement. “Some places are simply too special to drill, and we are thrilled that a federal agency has acknowledged that the refuge merits wilderness protection.”
By managing the coastal plain as wilderness, federal officials would prohibit motorized access to the area as well as the construction of any roads. Even before this designation, Alaska boasts 58 million acres of wilderness, more than half of all the land enjoying that level of protection in the United States.
The new measures reflect the Obama administration’s heightened focus on the Arctic, which is both home to some of the nation’s most exceptional habitat but also under intense pressure from climate change because it is warming faster than other areas.
The fight over the Arctic refuge, however, is nothing new. In 1995, President Bill Clinton vetoed legislation passed by Congress that would have approved exploration and production on the coastal plain. Then a second effort by Murkowski and the late senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to open the non-wilderness portion of ANWR to development in 2005 fell just short of the votes needed because of Democratic opposition.
Murkowski, who also has control over Interior’s budget because she chairs the Senate Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, would not specify how she would seek to undermine the new policies but made it clear she would retaliate.
“These decisions simply cannot be allowed to stand,” she said. “I have tried to work with this administration — even though they’ve made it extremely difficult every step of the way — but those days are officially over. We are left with no choice but to hit back as hard as we can.”