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Alaska Governor Pursues New Strategy in Push to Open Arctic Refuge to Drilling

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Getty Images
A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plan is likely to recommend that ANWR’s coastal plains be designated as wilderness, putting the crude oil believed to lie beneath the surface off-limits for development.

After being frustrated for decades in their efforts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development, Alaska politicians are trying a new approach that may shift the battleground from Congress to the courts.

Buoyed by support from the state’s senators, Gov. Sean Parnell is on a publicity blitz touting a 7-year plan to study and explore oil and gas resources in the refuge known as ANWR. His campaign is premised on what he believes is a requirement, set in law by Congress 33 years ago, that the Interior Department must allow him to conduct a three-dimensional seismic study to determine how much oil resides beneath the region’s coastal plains.

The Obama administration reads that law differently and is poised to deny the Republican governor’s request for a permit to study the resources in ANWR. That rejection is likely to trigger a legal battle for the future of that section of Alaska’s North Slope.

Though oil and gas industry supporters and environmentalists have been at loggerheads for years, the upcoming release of a conservation plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides a new battleground. The plan is likely to recommend that ANWR’s coastal plains be designated as wilderness, putting the crude oil believed to lie beneath the surface off-limits for development.

Congress has the final word on whether to designate the area as wilderness, but drilling proponents say the Fish and Wildlife Service recommendation will ensure that the land remains untouched because lawmakers are unlikely to muster enough support to overturn it.

The fight over energy development dates back more than three decades, when President Jimmy Carter signed legislation (PL 96-487) in 1980 creating the refuge. The law allowed for oil and gas exploration in a portion of the refuge, but only if Congress authorized it.

Even at the height of his powers as Appropriations Committee chairman, the late Ted Stevens of Alaska — the longest-serving Republican senator ever — was unable to win enactment of legislation opening the refuge. Budget reconciliation legislation in 1996 that would have allowed energy development in ANWR passed the Republican-controlled Congress but was vetoed by President Bill Clinton.

One of the important questions in the ANWR debate has been exactly how much oil could be recovered if drilling were allowed and what effect that might have on world markets. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said Parnell’s plan would help answer that question and is a “sound proposal to move forward with greatly improved science and technology.”

The state’s senior senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski, also supports the study and has helped Parnell amplify his message in Washington.

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