President Barack Obama will propose protecting 1.4 million acres (556,000 hectares) of the Arctic from oil and gas drilling, the Interior Department said on Sunday.
The proposal to expand the part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge designated as wilderness faces an uphill battle in Congress, where Republicans in control of both chambers oppose curbs to oil production, and drew immediate criticism from GOP lawmakers.
The wilderness designation, the highest level of federal protection under which oil and gas drilling is banned, would be extended to 19.8 million acres under the proposal, the Interior Department said.
“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. “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.”
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska called the Obama administration’s move a politically motivated attack on Alaska. On Friday, she had introduced a bill that would have permitted oil production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
“It’s clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory. The promises made to us at statehood, and since then, mean absolutely nothing to them. I cannot understand why this administration is willing to negotiate with Iran, but not Alaska,” Murkowski said in a statement on Sunday. “We will fight back with every resource at our disposal.” (It must be noted that Murkowski’s top financial backer is the energy industry, with oil and gas companies donating at least 750,000 to her campaign).
The area in question, a narrow strip wedged between the peaks of the Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean, is home to the most diverse wildlife in the Arctic. It’s a vital site for polar bears, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and the migratory Porcupine caribou herd, both of which rely on the area to raise their young. In total, more than 200 species of birds, 37 land mammal species, eight marine mammal species and 42 species of fish call the vast refuge home.
Currently, over 7 million acres of the refuge are managed as wilderness, consistent with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. However, more than 60 percent of the refuge – including the Coastal Plain – does not carry that designation.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the coastal plain holds 10.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil.
Environmental groups praised the Obama administration’s request to expand the wilderness designation. 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.”
Making the case against oil and gas drilling in the area, 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 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,” they wrote.
The Washington Post, which first reported the story, said the Interior Department would also place part of the Arctic Ocean off limits to drilling and is considering additional limits on oil and gas production in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska.
The announcement is one of a series that the Interior Department will make this week that will affect Alaska’s oil and gas production, the Post said.