The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced it will consider new Wilderness designations in the 19.5 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as it develops a new Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the refuge.
The Record of decision from the planning process could recommend the designation of the “1002 area” of the refuge’s coastal plain as Wilderness, an action that would permanently close America’s most promising onshore oil and gas prospect to future development.
Governor Sean Parnell and Alaska’s congressional delegation immediately expressed concern and pledged to aggressively fight any new Wilderness recommendations inside ANWR.
“The oil and gas, wilderness, and wildlife values of the coastal plain have already been studied and this study previously has been submitted to Congress,” Governor Parnell said. “It is a mistake for the federal government to initiate yet another planning process in ANWR.” The governor said the State would participate “vigorously” in the process.
“The Obama administration is wrong to pursue new Wilderness in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or anywhere else in Alaska,” said Senator Mark Begich. “I’ll fight any effort to block development of the enormous oil and gas likely beneath the Arctic Refuge.” Begich said he would use his position on the Senate Budget Committee to cut funding for the Service’s study.
Congressman Don Young said he
would “adamantly oppose” new Wilderness
designations in the refuge. Meanwhile,
environmentalists hailed the effort.
As part of the update to ANWR’s conservation plan, the Service will conduct
a review of the refuge lands to determine if
additional acreage should be designated as
Wilderness. Public meetings are being held
this spring in Alaska and in Washington,
D.C. on the planning process. A draft plan
will be released for another round of public
comments in February 2011. Based upon a
review of comments, the Service will issue
the final plan and record of decision in April
Any proposed Wilderness designations
would need to go before Congress for its
Forty-two percent of ANWR, including
500,000 acres of its eastern coastal plain, is
already designated Wilderness. Overall, 92 percent of the refuge is closed to development.
However, 1.5 million acres of the refuge’s
western coastal plain, the 1002 area, was excluded from the Wilderness designation in a compromise struck under the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA).
In exchange, Congress doubled the size of the Arctic Refuge and designated eight million acres outside the 1002 area as Wilderness. In recognizing the coastal plain’s enormous oil and gas potential, Congress mandated a study of the 1002 area’s geology and petroleum resources, as well as its wildlife and environmental values. In 1987, the Department of the Interior concluded that oil development would have minimal impact on wildlife and recommended the coastal plain be opened to development.
Congress in 1995 voted to open the 1002 area to exploration, but President Bill Clinton vetoed the measure.
A federal Wilderness designation over the 1002 area, which accounts for eight percent of the refuge, would forever place off-limits what is likely North America’s most prolific onshore oil and gas prospect. Such action would mean abandoning the 1980 compromise and up to 16 billion barrels of oil and 18 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Wilderness is the most restrictive land classification, precluding all development. It is nearly impossible to undo.
Alaska already contains 58 million acres of federal Wilderness, an area larger than the combined size of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire. Alaska accounts for 53 percent of America’s entire federal Wilderness areas. Not one acre of federal Wilderness would be disturbed by oil and gas development in the 1002 area.
Alaskans strongly oppose a Wilderness designation on ANWR’s coastal plain, with 78 percent supporting oil exploration there. Every Alaskan Governor and every legislature and elected congressional representative and senator from Alaska have supported responsible development. The North Slope Borough, the regional government for the entire Alaskan Arctic, also supports development within the 1002 area, as well as the village of Kaktovik, which is located on the coastal plain.
The State of Alaska has consistently opposed additional Wilderness in Alaska because of the agreements made when ANILCA became law. In addition, Congress recognized in ANILCA that for Alaska to meet its economic and social needs, access to its natural resources would be essential.
The State of Alaska derives approximately 90 percent of its unrestricted general fund revenues from oil and gas development. As oil production declines, responsible development of the coastal plain’s oil and gas resources will be critical to Alaskans.
Oil development in ANWR would provide a safe and secure source of supply to the nation, would create hundreds of thousands of jobs throughout the country, and would refill the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, which is currently operating at one-third its original capacity.
Over the past 20 years, Congress has been split on the issue due to environmental concerns. However, populations of caribou, grizzly bears, polar bears, arctic foxes and musk oxen have all grown or remained stable over the 35-year period of oil development on the North Slope. The Central Arctic caribou herd at Prudhoe Bay has grown from under 5,000 animals in the 1970s to more then 66,000 animals today.
“The process could very well conclude with a Wilderness recommendation for all of ANWR’s coastal plain,” warned Adrian Herrera, Executive Director of Arctic Power. Herrera said if that were the case, President Obama would likely recommend to Congress that it pass a Wilderness bill. Currently, there are two bills in Congress that call for formal Wilderness status across the 1002 area.
“The hearings in Alaska and Washington will probably be targeted by the environmental movement as a way to get the issue in the news and fundraise,” said Herrera.
Despite frustration with years of deadlock on the ANWR issue on Capitol Hill, Herrera said he hopes Alaskans will be actively engaged in the process. He encouraged Alaskans to submit comments opposing any new wilderness designations on the coastal plain, in order to preserve the option of future exploration.
Public comments are due June 7 and can be submitted in writing to: Sharon Seim, Planning Team Leader, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 101 12th Avenue, Room 236, Fairbanks, AK 99701. They may also be submitted via email to ArcticRefugeCCP@ fws.gov or by fax 907-456-0428.
For assistance in formulating comments, please see RDC’s Action Alert.
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