Alaska’s governor and congressional delegation are furious over President Obama’s announcement this weekend that he’s seeking wilderness status for the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That would put the area off-limits to oil and gas development. Permanent wilderness designation would require congressional approval, and this Republican-led Congress is unlikely to grant it. But that’s just the start of what Obama has in store for the state in the coming days.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, flanked by Congressman Don Young and Sen. Dan Sullivan, faced national reporters at the U.S. Capitol, projecting ferocity.
“We have said as a delegation that we will not stand it. We will not tolerate (it), and we will do everything that we can to push back against an administration that has taken a look at Alaska and said ‘it’s a nice little snow globe up there and we’re going to keep it that way,'” she said.
Murkowski says wilderness status for ANWR is just one of three gut punches the Interior Department plans deliver this week to Alaska’s economy. She says Interior Secretary Sally Jewell’s chief of staff, Tommy Beaudreau, told her about them Friday. Punch two will be withdrawals from the Arctic off-shore leasing program. That five-year draft plan is expected as soon as tomorrow. Punch 3, Murkowski says, will be to the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, where ConocoPhillips needs a road to develop its Greater Moose’s Tooth project. Murkowski says the government intends to impose conditions that will add $40 million to the cost.
“If it’s not off-limits, (the administration is) going to make it so hard and so expensive that no operator is going to want to do it,” Murkowski said. “Is this how you treat a state?”
Murkowski says she intends to try to block the actions legislatively and through the budget — a meaningful statement since she chairs the subcommittee charged with writing the Interior Department’s spending bill. She’s written a “sense of Congress” statement on the Arctic, as an amendment to the Keystone pipeline bill. She mentioned a possible lawsuit. She also says the congressional delegation will work to educate the rest of the country on how much care Alaska’s industry takes to avoid harming the land or animals.
Rep. Young told reporters the industry does no harm to Arctic wildlife.
“I mean that’s the nonsense. The guy in New York, Miami, Philadelphia San Francisco. ‘Oh, we’ve got to save the poor little animals,’” Young said in falsetto, hands aflutter. “It doesn’t affect them! Never has. It’s all a myth, easily sold to the less knowledgeable people.”
Once the administration formally requests wilderness status, it intends to manage those parts of ANWR as wilderness. Environmentalists who support the plan say it won’t make a big difference on the ground, because industry isn’t allowed there now anyway. The government says in its plan it intends to keep subsistence access the same. Murkowski says she believes Obama’s wilderness request is just a prelude.
“Lisa’s theory: I think that they are advancing this in an effort to get environmental support, to raise money for the cause,” she said.
As she sees it, Obama is trying to drum up support from his base so that he can then declare ANWR a national monument, an executive action to lock up the area. Murkowski says that would violate the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which says Congressional approval is required to reclassify large tracts of land.
“But if he’s got public support on his side, he doesn’t care if he’s ignored the law (ANILCA),” she said. So I think he’s teeing himself up for future action.”
While Obama’s move has Alaska officials fuming, environmentalists are thanking him. Cindy Shogan of the Alaska Wilderness League says it’ll still be tough to get a wilderness bill through Congress but she says Obama’s commitment to the issue helps.