Obama plans to ask Congress to designate more than 12 million acres of Alaska’s wildlife refuge as a protected wilderness area, seeking to block oil and gas production.
Alaska’s Republican lawmakers immediately criticized the plan, saying it would damage their state’s economy.
In a video released by the White House on Sunday, Obama said he wants to “make sure that this amazing wonder is preserved for future generations.”
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said, “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.”
Much of the dispute revolves around some 1.5 million acres on the oil-rich coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, long a source of contention between conservationists and backers of the energy industry.
Alaska’s Republican lawmakers denounced the Obama administration’s plan as a threat to their state’s economy, and the nation’s energy production.
“It’s clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “The promises made to us at statehood, and since then, mean absolutely nothing to them.”
Newly elected Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said the administration’s plan puts “energy security in serious jeopardy.” He said “we will defeat their lawless attempt to designate ANWR as a wilderness, as well as their ultimate goal of making Alaska one big national park.”
While Congress would have to approve a formal wilderness designation, some Alaska officials pointed out that the Interior Department would immediately begin managing the coastal plain on ANWR, making oil and gas production all but impossible.
In the White House video, Obama said the Interior Department is developing a “comprehensive plan” to protect the “very fragile” Arctic refuge.
Currently, more than 7 million acres of the more than 19.8 million-acre refuge are managed as wilderness, pursuant to a 1980 law, the Interior Department said. They are requesting that another 12.28 acres — including the coastal plain — also receive the wilderness designation.
Environmental groups praised the administration’s request. Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, called it “the best news for the refuge since President Eisenhower established it in 1960 as the Arctic National Wildlife Range.”
John Podesta, counselor to President Obama, and Mike Boots, the acting chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, said in a White House website blog post that the area “sustains the most diverse array of wildlife in the entire Arctic.” It includes the porcupine caribou, polar bears, gray wolves, muskoxen, and bird species that migrate to the nation’s 49 other states.
In arguing against oil and gas drilling in ANWR, Podesta and Boots cited the recent spike in U.S. oil production overall, and said Arctic refuge is too special “to put at risk” through oil and natural gas spills.
Drilling for oil on the coastal plain is “a move that could irreparably damage this ecological treasure and harm the Alaska Native communities who still depend on the caribou for subsistence,” the two Obama officials said.
[by David Jackson, writing for USA TODAY]
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