WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama waded into a decades-long fight over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge over the weekend, announcing that his administration would pursue a wilderness designation for 12.28 million acres, barring drilling in most of the South Carolina-sized refuge.
Obama’s plans will require congressional approval. But if the Alaska delegation is any hint as to where things are headed, his proposal is going nowhere in a Republican-controlled Congress. On Monday, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said Obama had gone “completely wacko.” Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, chair of the Senate Energy committee, said the administration’s plans were a “kick to the gut” that treated Alaska as if it were a “snow globe out there” that should be left untouched.
Here are 5 things to know about the battle ahead.
IN THE NEAR TERM, NOTHING CHANGES. There is no drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge now, and it would take an act of Congress to authorize any drilling in the refuge. Congress has tried and failed repeatedly to get legislation to open up the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain to drilling in the past. It came closest in 1995, when President Bill Clinton vetoed it. Obama wouldn’t be any more receptive if Congress passed legislation again. Obama’s wilderness designation requires Congress’ approval too. And Republicans in Congress, already critical of the administration on its energy policies on federal lands, are just as unlikely to give Obama what he wants.
OIL PRODUCTION GOING GANGBUSTERS. While the battle over drilling in the refuge has been waged for years, the United States’ oil boom changes the context. Supporters of drilling say more oil is needed regardless of the U.S. now being the world’s largest oil producer, because the U.S. still consumes more oil than it produces. Supporters of Obama’s wilderness proposal say now more than ever it makes sense to put the refuge off-limits because the U.S. is awash in oil. As Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass, a longtime fighter for permanent protection, said Monday that the choice is no longer between drilling in the refuge and being reliant on the Middle East. “The (oil) boom in the lower 48 has changed the whole picture,” he said.
REFUGE A DROP IN BUCKET FOR U.S. SUPPLIES. Even if the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge were opened to drilling, its known reserves are equal to about three years’ worth of U.S. oil production. The U.S. in December produced 9.2 million barrels of crude per day, up 84 per cent from the 5 million barrels per day the U.S. produced in 2008. Between the coastal plain, adjacent state lands and Alaska Native in-holdings, the U.S. Geological Survey has estimated the mean volume of recoverable oil of about 10.4 billion barrels, though that has a wide range of uncertainty. The state of Alaska has sued the federal government to be able to explore the refuge’s coastal plain with more modern exploratory techniques.
ALASKA’S OIL DOMINANCE WANING. Despite its reputation as a huge oil and gas state, Alaska’s share of U.S. oil production has been on the decline. Oil production there peaked in 1988 at just over 2 million barrels per day, when it was 25 per cent of U.S. production. Alaska now produces about 500,000 barrels per day, or 5 per cent of U.S. output. Oil and gas production still supplies many Alaskans with jobs, and nearly 90 per cent of the state’s revenue comes from the oil and gas industry, mainly from oil and gas produced on state lands and moved through the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline. Murkowski said Monday that the trans-Alaska pipeline was less than half full, and said the administration backs “an all-of-the-above energy policy everywhere but Alaska.”
A PREVIEW TO 2016? President Barack Obama’s bold move to permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – and the reaction of Republicans in Congress – almost certainly sets it up to be a campaign issue in 2016. The refuge is no stranger to the presidential campaign trail, where it is often used as test on where candidates stand on energy policy. In 2008, Sen. John McCain and his running mate, then Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin held opposing views on drilling in the refuge – she was for it, he against.
Associated Press writers Jonathan Fahey in New York and Dan Joling in Anchorage contributed to this report.