David Foster / AP

Alaska legislators livid over Obama’s plan to expand Arctic refuge

President on Sunday called on Congress to expand Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to include oil-rich coastal plain

President Barack Obama's call on Congress to expand protection of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — including the banning of drilling in an oil-rich region along the coast — has infuriated the state's pro-oil congressional delegation, which has promised to fight back.

“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, said in a joint statement with other legislators after Obama's video announcement on Sunday. “It’s clear this administration does not care about us and sees us as nothing but a territory ... We will fight back with every resource at our disposal.”

The 1.4-million-acre refuge sits between the Brooks Range mountains and the Arctic Ocean and is home to indigenous people and important species, including polar bears and porcupine caribou. Environmentalists warn that any incidents or oil spills could have disastrous effects on the pristine wilderness.

"The refuge sustains the most diverse array of wildlife in the entire Arctic — home not only to the porcupine caribou but to polar bears, gray wolves and muskoxen. Bird species from the coastal plain migrate to all 50 states of the country — meaning that no matter where you live, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is part of your landscape," said the White House blog.

"It is too precious to risk," the blog continued, adding that spills could happen even as the White House affirmed its belief that the safe extraction of oil and gas is possible.

Obama's video address to Congress was made aboard Air Force One. Critics questioned the logic of filming an environmental, anti-drilling video aboard a plane with the capacity to carry more than 50,000 gallons of fuel.

The coastal plain holds 10.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates. Efforts to extract it have been contentious for decades, with Alaskan legislators and allies from oil-friendly states lobbying for access from a government that seems to share environmentalists' concerns.

The stalemate over the coastal plain dates to 1980, when the Arctic refuge was expanded from 9 million to 19 million acres through the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, according to Alaska Dispatch News. The law left the plain in legal limbo, requiring congressional action to open or close the area permanently. Obama wants the refuge and the coastal plain classified as wilderness by Congress so development will be banned.

"The majority of the refuge is not protected as wilderness, including the coastal plain," said an article on the White House blog. "For more than three decades, some voices have clamored to drill for oil in the coastal plain — a move that could irreparably damage this ecological treasure and harm the Alaska Native communities who still depend on the caribou for subsistence."

Conservationists lauded Sunday's announcement, calling it the most important news for the refuge since President Dwight Eisenhower established it in 1960 as the Arctic National Wildlife Range.

“It’s a national treasure worthy of the highest protection available for our public lands,” Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.

Far from seeing the move as good for conservation, many Alaskan legislators viewed it as a decision by the federal government to, as Murkowski said, "lock up millions of acres of the nation's richest oil and natural gas prospects on the Arctic coastal plain."

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, went further, calling the move confirmation of "the Obama administration's war against Alaska families," before echoing Murkowski's accusations of violating state sovereignty.

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker was "outraged" at the timing of the announcement, which comes amid low oil prices and declining production "despite having more than 40 billion barrels of untapped resources, mostly in federal areas where oil and gas activity is blocked or restricted," the joint statement said.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, called the plan “callously planned and politically motivated" in the same statement. 

The Washington Post reported that, in addition to expanding the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Interior Department plans to place part of the Arctic Ocean off limits to drilling. It's also considering additional limits on oil and gas production in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska, the Post added.

The Interior Department is expected to announce the full plan later this week.

With wire services

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