In his latest move to force the United States to shift away from using fossil fuels, President Barack Obama is calling on Congress to designate the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, making it off-limits to oil and gas production.
The president announced his proposal via YouTube on January 25. He called ANWR an “incredible place, pristine, undisturbed. I’m going to be calling on Congress to make sure they take it one step further, designating it as a wilderness so we can make sure that this amazing wonder is preserved for future generations.”
Administration’s Plan B
Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, only Congress can designate areas as wilderness, and there is little support in the Republican-controlled Congress to do so for the 12.3 million acres of ANWR. The administration could circumvent Congress by having the Interior Department issue restrictions limiting access to, the use of and transit in ANWR making it de facto wilderness.
The prospect of having this large swath of Alaska placed off-limits to energy production alarmed Alaska’s congressional delegation. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, expressed fears the administration’s action could devastate Alaska’s economy.
In a press statement, Murkowski said, “It’s clear the administration does not care about us and sees Alaska 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 means at our disposal.”
‘Attack on Sovereignty’
Murkowski said the administration’s move was “a stunning attack on our sovereignty and our ability to develop a strong economy that allows us, our children, and our grandchildren to thrive.”
Murkowski and state officials argue the biggest threat to energy production comes from administrative steps the Interior Department could enact, rather than a wilderness designation.
A related concern for Alaskans is the future of the 800-mile-long Trans-Alaska pipeline. If the flow of oil through the pipelines declines below a certain level it will not function properly and may have to be shut down. And once the pipeline has been shut down, it must, under law, be dismantled. Although this may not be a short-term threat, state officials are wary of any moves by Washington that could reduce the amount of oil shipped through the pipeline.
‘Unilateral Economic Disarmament’
In addition to the economic considerations, the president’s move on ANWR raises geopolitical concerns, says Craig Rucker, executive director of the Washington-based Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow.
“At a time when Washington is starting to turn its back on the energy resources in the Arctic region, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is moving aggressively to exploit the riches there,” he said. “Putin understands the importance of reliable energy; I don’t believe the same can be said of Obama. What we are seeing here is unilateral economic disarmament on the part of the United States.”
Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D. ([email protected]), is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.