Alarmed at prospects that more of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could be designated as wilderness, Alaska officials are lodging a raft of legal and economic objections with the Obama administration.
Alaska Attorney General Dan Sullivan called on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to essentially start over with its process of taking public comments for a new “comprehensive conservation plan” for the 19 million-acre refuge.
In a June 7 letter to ANWR manager Richard Voss in Fairbanks, Sullivan said Fish and Wildlife’s April 7 call for public comments on the conservation plan possibly was unlawful because the agency said it would ignore viewpoints on whether the refuge’s coastal plain should be opened for oil and gas development.
And in a separate letter, Sally Gibert of the state Department of Natural Resources told Voss the state opposes more wilderness in ANWR, as well as designation of new wild and scenic rivers.
“Alaska is already home to half of the designated wilderness in the United States,” Gibert wrote, adding that the refuge already includes three designated wild and scenic rivers.
ANWR’s importanceOpening the coastal plain to oil and gas exploration long has been a top goal for Alaska politicians and economic development boosters. The area is considered among the nation’s top prospects for multibillion-barrel oil discoveries.
But ANWR over the years has become a cause célèbre as environmental groups campaign to keep the coastal plain shut.
The Fish and Wildlife Service said it needs to update ANWR’s comprehensive conservation plan because the existing plan is 22 years and such plans normally should be revised every 15 years.
Since the existing plan was done, the agency said, “much has changed.”
“New laws and policies have been enacted, climate change has emerged as a concern, the Dalton Highway has opened to the public, and visitor use patterns have changed,” a Fish and Wildlife press release said.
In a notice published April 7 in the Federal Register, the service set a June 7 deadline for receiving “meaningful comments that will help determine the desired future conditions of the Refuge and address the full range of Refuge purposes.”
But the notice added that comments on potential oil and gas activity in ANWR wouldn’t be considered. The agency said that under ANILCA, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, which enlarged the refuge and designed much of it as wilderness, Congress reserved for itself the decision on whether to allow oil and gas development on the coastal plain, specifically in what’s known as the 1002 area.
“Therefore, the Service does not have the authority to decide this issue, and we will not consider or respond to comments that support or oppose such development,” Fish and Wildlife’s Federal Register notice said.
Attorney general objects“There are at least three significant problems with the Service’s position,” Sullivan’s letter said.
First, the service is obliged to consider oil and gas development as an alternative use for the 1002 area under NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act, he said.
Second, even though Congress alone has the power to lift the drilling ban, the courts have rejected the requirement for legislative implementation as a rationale for limiting public comment on an alternative, Sullivan argued.
Third, he said, the Fish and Wildlife Service has “unreasonably restricted the scope of the public comment period to exclude discussion of oil and gas development because ANILCA expressly requires the Service to consider how oil and gas development will impact wildlife and the environment.”
Sullivan called on the agency to issue a “corrected” notice of intent to revise the comprehensive conservation plan and to prepare an environmental impact statement.
In updating the ANWR plan, Fish and Wildlife indicated it might propose new areas suitable for wilderness, possibly including the key 1002 area.
The service would forward its recommendations to the Interior secretary, and any new wilderness designation would be subject to congressional approval.
The agency also said it would review the idea of additional wild and scenic rivers in ANWR.
Gibert, who is the state’s ANILCA program coordinator, opposed both ideas in her letter to the refuge manager.
Like Sullivan, Gibert suggested the process shouldn’t exclude talk of oil and gas development.
“Consideration of wilderness designation is inextricably linked to the potential for oil and gas development,” she wrote. “Maintaining the option for oil and gas exploration and development, especially in the Section 1002 area of the coastal plain, remains of paramount importance to the State of Alaska. A wilderness designation precludes such on-shore development, which should be a concern at the national level as well, since the coastal plain represents the most promising unexplored petroleum region in North America.”
Gibert noted the U.S. Geological Survey in 1999 estimated potential for discovery of between 5.7 billion and 16 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil within ANWR.
With respect to wild and scenic rivers, Gibert wrote:
“We understand the Refuge intends to evaluate numerous rivers within Refuge boundaries to determine eligibility for designation into the Wild and Scenic River System. The State remains strongly opposed to new recommendations for wild and scenic rivers. The Refuge already includes three designated wild and scenic rivers. Similar to our concerns regarding wilderness, we consider additional designations excessive and unnecessary as Refuge management already provides adequate resource protection to the river corridors.”
Looking aheadAttorney General Sullivan’s letter made further arguments against more wilderness, saying that so designating the 1002 area would “impact the environment because it will undermine the nation’s movement towards energy independence.” It also would result in job losses and loss of revenue for the state and federal treasuries, and would shorten the life of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, Sullivan said.
But a coalition including some of the nation’s top environmental groups said in a June 8 press release that, on behalf of the more than 10 million Americans they represent, some 30 organizations had submitted comments on ANWR’s future, urging Fish and Wildlife to recommend wilderness designation for all 19 million acres of “this unique, wild place.”
Fish and Wildlife said it aims to release a draft conservation plan for public review and comment in February 2011. A final plan and record of decision is scheduled for April 2012.