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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.

“Instead of trying to lock up our resources, we should develop them as part of a balanced energy plan,” said Murkowski, the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Parnell touted his plan in May at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event and made it the focus of a Republican response to one of the president’s weekly addresses last month.

“The debate on ANWR has not kept up with the technology,” he said at a news conference this month. “Why wouldn’t you want to know what’s out there if it has limited impact?”

Parnell has offered $50 million to begin the seismic study. After Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rebuffed his request for federal support in the effort, he threatened to go it alone.

Parnell still needs permission from the Interior Department, which oversees the fish and wildlife agency, to conduct the study. But Parnell has argued that the 1980 law entrusting the federal government to manage this region requires the administration to approve his plan.

“We think there will be some explaining to do if the federal government looks at this and says no,” he said, suggesting that a lawsuit against the federal government is the likely next step.

For her part, Jewell reiterated her opposition to the plan in a letter this week.

“That is not something we support,” she said.

A legal battle could stall wilderness designation for ANWR and potentially allow time for a drilling-friendly administration to change course.

In Congress, both sides are determined to stand their ground. While Alaska’s delegation, along with oil and gas industry supporters, have not succeeded in opening the area to drilling, members who side with environmentalists have been unable to permanently take oil and gas development in the refuge off the table. Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., introduced such a bill (HR 139) when he was in the House and a member of its Energy and Commerce panel.

Environmentalists contend that Parnell is misreading the law and Congress did not intend to allow drilling when it moved to preserve this unique national landmark. They note that a seismic study was already conducted in the 1980s and that a second one would unnecessarily damage the pristine land.

“You don’t get a second bite at that apple,” Lydia Weiss, Arctic Refuge campaign director at the Alaska Wilderness League, said in an interview.

Parnell’s camp responded that the initial study is archaic and that advances in seismic technology make it possible to conduct a more accurate study with limited impact on the land.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 5.7 billion to 16 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil may be there.

Proponents say the estimate is likely conservative and that drilling in ANWR could offer the country a potential energy source worth $1 trillion that could free the nation from dependency on foreign oil. Critics say the volume of recoverable oil would have little impact on world markets and does not justify the potential environmental harm.

“It’s America’s national wildlife refuge,” Weiss said. “It doesn’t just belong to Alaska, and it doesn’t just belong to Alaska’s senators.”

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