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Obama administration to propose new wilderness protections in Arctic refuge — Alaska Republicans declare war

President Obama announced that the Interior Department released a revised conservation plan to better sustain and manage Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Video: YouTube/The White House)
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The Obama administration will propose setting aside more than 12 million acres in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, the White House announced Sunday, halting any chance of oil exploration for now in the refuge’s much-fought-over coastal plain and sparking a fierce battle with Republicans, including the new chair of the Senate Energy Committee.

“Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuge is an incredible place — pristine, undisturbed. It supports caribou and polar bears, all manner of marine life, countless species of birds and fish, and for centuries it supported many Alaska Native communities. But it’s very fragile,” President Obama said in a White House video on the move.

The announcement, according to individuals briefed on the plan, is just the first in a series of decisions the Interior Department will make in the coming week that will affect the state’s oil and gas production. The department will also put part of the Arctic Ocean off limits to drilling as part of a five-year leasing plan it will issue this week and is considering whether to impose additional limits on oil and gas production in parts of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

The new areas of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) proposed for wilderness designation will comprise 1.52 million acres of the refuge’s coastal plain, 5.85 million acres of the Brooks mountain range and 4.92 million acres of the Porcupine Plateau.

The move marks the latest instance of Obama’s aggressive use of executive authority to advance his top policy priorities. While only Congress can create a wilderness area, once the federal government identifies a place for that designation, it receives the highest level of protection until Congress acts or a future administration adopts a different approach.

It also reflects the influence of White House senior counselor John Podesta, who is stepping down next month to help launch Hillary Rodham Clinton’s expected presidential bid. Podesta, who helped oversee several of President Bill Clinton’s major public lands initiatives while serving as his chief of staff, has elevated conservation issues to the top of the White House agenda since joining Obama’s staff a year ago.

In a blog post, Podesta and the White House Council on Environmental Quality’s Mike Boots wrote that while the administration backs oil and gas production, the refuge is not an appropriate place. “Unfortunately, accidents and spills can still happen, and the environmental impacts can sometimes be felt for many years,” they wrote.

Democrats and Republicans have fought for 35 years over how to manage ANWR, which boasts significant petroleum reserves but also provides critical habitat for calving caribou, millions of migrating birds, polar bears and other Arctic wildlife.

“What’s coming is a stunning attack on our sovereignty and our ability to develop a strong economy that allows us, our children and our grandchildren to thrive,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), the new chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement. “It’s clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory. . . . I cannot understand why this administration is willing to negotiate with Iran, but not Alaska. But we will not be run over like this. We will fight back with every resource at our disposal.” Murkowski spoke to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell about the department’s plan during a brief phone call Friday.

Speaking to reporters in India Monday, Podesta said that while GOP lawmakers had opposed several of Obama’s previous executive actions, “I was hoping that a more balanced reaction would be forthcoming from some of the people who have commented on this.”

“So we hope that we can find cooperation so that that wilderness designation ultimately can go through in the Congress,” Podesta added. “But we don’t think that the reaction that particularly Senator Murkowski had to this announcement was warranted.”

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, said in a statement he may be forced to accelerate oil and gas permitting on state lands to compensate for the new federal restrictions.

“Having just given to Alaskans the State of the State and State of the Budget addresses, it’s clear that our fiscal challenges in both the short and long term would benefit significantly from increased oil production,” Walker said, adding that most of the roughly 40 billion barrels of the state’s untapped reserves are in federal areas where oil and gas activity is blocked or restricted.

Oil industry officials decried the proposed limits as another example of the administration’s regulatory excesses. “Today’s announcement is the perfect bookend to the president’s State of the Union speech last Tuesday in its utter disregard for the midterm election results and disdain for a Republican-controlled Congress,” said Stephen Brown, vice president of federal government affairs for the petroleum refiner and marketer Tesoro Corp. “There is no longer any pretext of bipartisanship — just this ‘my way or the highway’ approach.”

Erik Milito, said director of upstream and industry operation for American Petroleum Institute, said in an interview, “It sends the wrong signal to Alaskans, the industry and the world.”

“These are strategic assets, and the U.S. should be leading the way in the development of these resources,” Milito said, adding the industry has proved it can develop them “in a safe and environmentally responsible way.”

Environmental leaders, however, described the wilderness proposal as a prudent measure rooted in a long-term view of the region’s future. The refuge’s coastal plain lies north of the jagged peaks of the Brooks Range, between the mountains and the sea. Polar bears, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, den there in winter, birth their cubs and nurse them until spring; it serves as the species’ most important denning habitat along the U.S. Arctic coast. In addition to serving as calving ground for the Porcupine caribou herd, it is home to other mammals, including grizzly bears, musk oxen and wolves.

“By recognizing the incredible wilderness and habitat values for species such as polar bear and caribou, the Fish and Wildlife Service has taken a tremendous step to preserve one of the wildest places in North America — the Arctic Refuge — for future generations,” Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society, said in a statement. “Some places are simply too special to drill, and we are thrilled that a federal agency has acknowledged that the refuge merits wilderness protection.”

David Hayes, who spearheaded the Interior Department’s Arctic policy as the department’s deputy secretary during Obama’s first term, said the move updates a Fish and Wildlife policy that has been in effect for nearly three decades and manages “to put the issue in front of Congress, instead of playing defense.”

The department’s upcoming decision to withdraw some sensitive areas from leasing in the Arctic, he added, “has never been done before” and reflects the administration’s effort to manage ecologically valuable areas “on the landscape level.”

“That’s big, and it potentially could affect the Gulf [of Mexico leasing process] down the line,” said Hayes, who now serves as a distinguished visiting lecturer in law at Stanford University and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

By managing the coastal plain as wilderness, federal officials would prohibit motorized access to the area as well as the construction of any roads. Even before this designation, Alaska boasted 58 million acres of wilderness, more than half of all the land with that level of protection in the United States.

The new measures reflect the Obama administration’s heightened focus on the Arctic, which is home to some of the nation’s most exceptional habitat but is also under intense pressure from climate change because it is warming faster than other areas.

The fight over the Arctic refuge, however, is nothing new. In 1995, President Clinton vetoed legislation passed by Congress that would have approved exploration and production on the coastal plain. Then a second effort by Murkowski and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to open the non-wilderness portion of ANWR to development in 2005 fell just short of the votes needed, because of Democratic opposition. (Stevens died in 2010.)

Murkowski, who also has control over the Interior Department’s budget as chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the interior and the environment, would not specify how she would seek to undermine the new policies, but she made it clear she would retaliate.

“These decisions simply cannot be allowed to stand,” she said. “I have tried to work with this administration — even though they’ve made it extremely difficult every step of the way — but those days are officially over. We are left with no choice but to hit back as hard as we can.”

Chris Mooney also contributed to this report, which is part of our new Energy and Environment coverage