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Vol. 20, No. 15 Week of April 12, 2015
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

ANWR decision issued

President Obama asks Congress to designate ANWR coastal plain as wilderness

Alan Bailey

Petroleum News

On April 3 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service followed up on the publication of the environmental impact statement for a new conservation plan for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by issuing a record of decision for the EIS, confirming among other things a recommendation to designate 12.28 million acres of ANWR as wilderness, including the coastal plain area of the refuge.

On that same day President Obama wrote to the U.S. Congress, asking Congress to legislate the wilderness designation. The president also asked Congress to place the Atigun, Hulahula, Kongakut and Marsh Fork Canning rivers in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

“This area is one of the beautiful, undisturbed places in the world,” the president said. “It is a national treasure and should be permanently protected through legislation for future generations.”

Highly prospective

Thought to be highly prospective for oil and gas, the coastal plain area of the refuge has been a major bone of environmental contention for many years, with environmentalists being adamantly opposed to any development anywhere in the refuge. Although in establishing ANWR Congress recognized the potential for oil development on the coastal plain of the refuge, development within the coastal plain requires Congressional approval - that approval has never been forthcoming. A wilderness designation, which also has to be enacted by Congress, would permanently place the coastal plain of the refuge off limits for oil and gas drilling.

The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated that there may be some 10.4 billion barrels of technically recoverable, undiscovered oil under the coastal plain of the refuge.

Officials protest

The proposal for wilderness designation provoked a storm of protest from Alaska officials.

“The vast majority of Alaskans do not support creating new wilderness in ANWR, so I am disappointed to see the Obama administration is continuing to press the issue,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “Congress designated the coastal plain of ANWR for oil and gas exploration more than three decades ago and we will continue to fight against the administration’s efforts to impose new restrictions on Alaska's lands and resources. A congressional designation of the coastal plain as wilderness will not happen on my watch.”

“This outrageous proposal from the Obama administration will undermine Alaska’s future and America’s energy security. It will never see the light of day in Congress,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska. “President Obama’s goal of starving the trans-Alaska pipeline of oil and turning our state into a giant national park will not stand.”

Comments on proposal

The record of decision says that nearly all commenters on the ANWR environmental impact statement had addressed the issue of the proposed wilderness designation, with a primary focus being the effect of the designation on potential oil and gas development. The Gwich’in people, a Native people of Arctic Alaska, generally support the wilderness recommendation on the grounds that a wilderness designation would protect caribou and other wildlife, the record of decision says. On the other hand, the Inupiat people, the Native people of Alaska’s Arctic coastal region, oppose the designation, which they think would limit or preclude economic opportunities.

Environmental organizations praised the Fish & Wildlife decision.

“This wilderness recommendation is a huge step toward permanent protection for one of America’s last great wild landscapes, and a victory for millions of Americans who want Alaska’s Arctic Refuge left in its natural state,” said Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska regional director for The Wilderness Society, in response to the issue of the record of decision. “Protecting the refuge - particularly the fragile coastal plain - from oil and gas development is vital for the long-term survival of the Porcupine caribou herd and the Native Gwich’in communities that depend on the herd for food.”

The record of decision says that, although Fish and Wildlife has recommended a wilderness designation for the coastal plain of the refuge, the agency proposes continuing to manage the area under what is referred to as a minimal management standard, a standard which provides similar management tools to wilderness management but which the agency can change through a conservation plan amendment. Federally qualified subsistence users will continue to be able to use refuge lands for subsistence purposes, the record of decision says.

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