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.