President Obama announced Sunday that his administration plans to lock up the oil-rich 1.5 million acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain and offshore areas in Alaska from oil and gas exploration.
Obama is asking Congress to designate 12 million acres of ANWR as a “wilderness” to keep it off-limits to development, despite widespread Native Alaskan support for drilling in the area. ANWR’s coastal plain alone is estimated to hold 28 billion barrels of oil.
“Designating vast areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as Wilderness reflects the significance this landscape holds for America and its wildlife,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.
The Obama administration argues that making ANWR off-limits to development will help protect the region’s wildlife and natural beauty. Obama is also considering ways to prevent new oil production at the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Environmentalists have long campaigned to hinder oil production in Alaska.
“Just like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of our nation’s crown jewels and we have an obligation to preserve this spectacular place for generations to come,” Jewell added.
But Alaska lawmakers were furious with the administration’s proposal — for decades Alaska Republicans and Democrats have been pushing for opening ANWR to drilling.
“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 Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski. “It’s clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory.”
The Obama administration has already proposed designating 226 million acres of waters off Alaska’s coast as a critical habitat for the Arctic ringed seal. Alaska’s outer continental shelf is believed to be home to the world’s largest untapped oil and gas reserves. According to Alaska’s Resource Development Council, the outer shelf could hold 27 billion barrels of oil and 132 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
“The promises made to us at statehood, and since then, mean absolutely nothing to them,” Murkowski said. “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’s energy production has been hampered in recent years due largely to federal restrictions and adverse economics. In recent months, the state has seen its financial situation grow worse because of plummeting oil prices. At one point, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline used to transport some 2.1 million barrels per day. It now carries well under 1 million barrels per day. The pipeline has so far only carried oil from state lands, as federal lands have been off-limits. The pipeline will have to be shut down and dismantled if it drops below 300,000 barrels per day.
“This is the best news for the refuge since President Eisenhower established it in 1960 as the Arctic National Wildlife Range,” said Rhea Suh, a former Obama Interior Department official who is now president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s a national treasure worthy of the highest protection available for our public lands.”
Environmentalists have been keen on slowing down the flow of oil through the pipeline to make it uneconomical and impractical to get oil from Alaska. Eco-activists have labelled Alaska a ground-zero for global warming, saying shrinking sea ice levels are harming polar bears, wildlife and Native Alaskans – despite evidence to the contrary.
Reacting to the news, Alaska’s newly elected governor said he would work to open more state lands to drilling. Though this will not likely solve the long-term decline in oil production – Alaska’s production fell from more than 2 million barrels per day in 1988 to 515,000 barrels per day in 2013.
“I will consider accelerating the options available to us to increase oil exploration and production on state-owned lands,” said Alaska Republican Gov. Bill Walker. “This further underscores the need for Alaska to become a participant in the infrastructure development for the benefit of all North Slope participants and the residents of Alaska.”