Alaska lawmakers and state officials are vowing to fight President Obama's Jan. 25 announcement that he will ask Congress to designate 12.3 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), as well as four Alaskan rivers, as wilderness areas off-limits for oil and gas development.
Currently, less than 40% of the refuge's 19.8 million acres are designated as wilderness areas, the highest level of federal public-land protection in the United States.
Along with the wilderness designation, the Interior Dept. is expected soon to release its new five-year plan that will indefinitely withdraw areas of the offshore Arctic waters—including significant portions of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas—from oil and gas leasing.
A wilderness designation requires congressional approval, something Obama may have difficulty getting.
GOP lawmakers from Alaska and the state’s governor were swift to blast the announcement.
“These decisions simply cannot be allowed to stand,” Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said in a statement released shortly after the White House outlined the plans in a blog.
“We are left with no choice but to hit back as hard as we can,” she said.
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, an Independent, said that, as a result of the White House announcement, he plans to accelerate options for increasing oil exploration and production on state-owned lands.
In the Jan. 25 blog posting, White House officials John Podesta and Mike Boots said that ANWR's Coastal Plains area, in particular, is “too precious to put at risk.”
They wrote that the Obama administration believes that oil and natural gas resources can be developed safely, but added, “unfortunately, accidents and spills can still happen, and the environmental impacts can sometimes be felt for many years.”
Podesta, a counselor to the president, told reporters on Jan. 26 that he didn’t think the GOP reaction was warranted. He said, “We will continue to work to try to find balance so that there will be drilling—continued drilling in Alaska—and it’s done in conjunction with the Alaska state lands that are being leased for oil and gas exploration.”
He added that Obama has overseen an “aggressive” leasing program in the National Petroleum Reserve. The Interior Dept. has leased out for oil and gas exploration tracts in that area, which is west of the ANWR Coastal Plains.