On Friday, President Obama formally sent Congress recommendations to set aside a majority of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as wilderness, finalizing a request first announced by the White House in January. The protections would ban oil and natural gas drilling across some 12 million acres, a level of protection that has drawn — and will likely continue to draw — staunch opposition from Republicans in Congress.
“Based on the best available science and extensive public comment, the Service’s preferred alternative recommends 12.28 million acres — including the Coastal Plain — for designation as wilderness,” Obama’s letter reads. “This area is one of the most beautiful, undisturbed places in the world. It is a national treasure and should be permanently protected through legislation for future generations.”
As the letter states, ANWR, an area that comprises about 19 million acres, is home to some of the most diverse wildlife in the Arctic, providing critical habitat for gray wolves, polar bears, caribou, and over 200 species of migratory birds.
But the area also houses a reserve of energy resources, prompting some in Congress to suggest that it should remain open to development. The Coastal Plain alone is estimated to contain some 5.7 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil.
A “wilderness” designation is the highest level of protection the government can bestow upon a region: it prohibits the development of permanent roads and commercial enterprise within the area. But only Congress can designate areas as wilderness, and Congress in recent years has been hesitant to exercise its powers in this way, with some 30 proposals still awaiting approval.
Obama’s proposed protections for ANWR are almost certain to face the same gridlock when they arrive before Congress. With Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) chairing the Energy Committee and Republicans controlling the House and the Senate, Congressional action on Obama’s proposal is unlikely, Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club’s Lands Team, told ThinkProgress.
“There may be a hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, chaired by Sen. Murkowski. Drilling proponents know they do not have 60 votes so I doubt Murkowski will push a vote on allowing drilling in the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge,” Manuel said. And even if Murkowski did manage to push through a bill that opposes Obama’s protections, the president would most likely veto it.
Murkowski was among multiple lawmakers — especially those from Alaska — who voiced opposition to Obama’s official recommendation to protect ANWR.
“The vast majority of Alaskans do not support creating new wilderness in ANWR, so I am disappointed to see the Obama administration is continuing to press the issue,” Murkowski said in a statement. “A congressional designation of the coastal plain as wilderness will not happen on my watch.”
Murkowski has previously called opening up the ANWR a “top priority,” but has voiced concern that the Republican-controlled Congress won’t be able to accomplish this on its own. It’s “not a given that we can advance an ANWR initiative to successful passage,” Murkowski told the Alaska Dispatch News in November.
“You’ve got a president that is pretty committed to drawing a line in the sand,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we won’t push it and push it very hard.”
On March 4, the Alaskan State Legislature passed, with unanimous support, a bill opposing the president’s plans for protecting the ANWR.
For the time being, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will manage the proposed area in ANWR as though it is designated wilderness. Even without Congressional approval, that’s still a shift in management of the area that Manuel described as “significant,” as now there will be more wildlife monitoring and any oil development will be off-limits.
Still, though environmental groups widely applauded Obama’s final proposal, many reiterated their interest in having the protection made permanent through Congressional action.
“The Arctic coastal plain is invaluable and worthy of the wilderness protections President Obama has recommended,” David Houghton, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, said in a statement on Friday. “Now it’s up to Congress to permanently designate it as wilderness so that future generations may benefit from this legacy.”
Opening ANWR to drilling has been debated in Congress for decades: In 1995, Congress approved a measure that would have allowed drilling in the ANWR, but it was vetoed by President Clinton. Congress tried again in 2005, with the Senate voting 51–49 to open the ANWR to oil and gas drilling, but the measure was eventually removed from the budget.