Trump’s choices of Cabinet renew debate over opening Alaska’s Arctic refuge to oil drilling
Trump’s nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state — along with rumors that he will choose Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke as Interior Secretary — have buoyed the hopes of many energy industry insiders and Alaskan lawmakers who have seen attempts to drill the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge thwarted during President Obama’s time in office.
“This is exactly the time we need to start developing the area,” Nick Loris, an energy expert at the Washington D.C.-based conservative think tank, the Heritage Foundation, told FoxNews.com. “It will take more of a hurdle given what Obama has done, but it can be undone.”
At the center of the battle over ANWR – a 19 million-acre tract of land flanked by the Brooks Range to the south, the Beaufort Sea to the north and Canada’s Yukon province to the east – is a section of the refuge called the coastal plain, or section 1002.
On one side of the debate: Alaska’s Republican lawmakers and a fossil fuel industry that sees the estimated 7.7 billion barrels of oil under the coastal plain a boon to the state’s flagging economy that has suffered from low oil prices on the global market and a decline in crude flowing through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.
On the other side: Environmental groups and the indigenous Gwich’in people, who consider the coastal plain sacred land and say oil drilling would ruin a fragile habitat for gray wolves, polar bears, porcupine caribou and more than 200 species of migratory birds.
“ANWR is a national treasure and an amazing piece of land,” Nicole Whittington-Evans, the Wilderness Society’s Alaska regional director, told FoxNews.com. “It is not a place where oil and gas development should be allowed.”
The refuge was created in 1980 as part of comprehensive public-lands legislation signed into law by President Jimmy Carter that put more than 100 million federal acres in Alaska under conservation protection. Lawmakers at the time recognized the potential for oil drilling on the coastal plain but they prohibited leasing or other development on the land unless authorized by a future Congress.
This is where the issue has stood for the past 36 years as Alaskan lawmakers’ and oil industry executives’ advances have been thwarted in Congress.
In 1995, the Alaskan delegation inserted a provision opening ANWR to development in a budget reconciliation bill, but the bill was vetoed by President Bill Clinton. In 2005, despite having the Senate, House and White House all in Republican hands, a push to open ANWR was also unsuccessful as a number of moderate Republicans voted against it.
Recently – as global oil prices have dropped to just more than $50 per barrel – oil companies have backed away from pushing to open ANWR and instead focused on their existing projects. Royal Dutch Shell in 2015 indefinitely canceled plans to drill in the Arctic and an oil industry consortium that included Exxon Mobil and BP recently suspended its arctic exploration program in the Beaufort Sea.
Parts of ANWR are already designated as wilderness, but not the coastal plain and Obama’s recommendation would prevent any road or industrial development on the land.
“Designating vast areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as Wilderness reflects the significance this landscape holds for America and its wildlife,” outgoing Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a statement. “Just like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of our nation’s crown jewels and we have an obligation to preserve this spectacular place for generations to come.”
The other option for Alaskan lawmakers – and a scenario that increasingly concerns environmental groups – is repeating their move in 1995 and attaching an ANWR provision to a budget reconciliation bill. This only requires 51 votes, cannot be filibustered and, unlike in 1995, won’t face the threat of a veto by a Democratic president.
Obama does have one card up his sleeve that could permanently halt any efforts to open ANWR to oil drilling – declare the region a national monument.
The 1906 Antiquities Act allows presidents to designate monuments as a way to protect natural, cultural or scientific features on certain pieces of land. Since its enactment, 15 presidents have designated more than 150 monuments with Obama using the law 25 times – most recently to expand the Papahānaumokuākea Marine Monument in Hawaii.
There has been little indication, however, that Obama plans to declare ANWR a monument in his final weeks in office and environmental groups say they are gearing up for a clash with the incoming administration.
“We’ve pushed the Obama administration to name the coastal area a national monument, but that probably won’t happen,” Manuel said. “So we’re bracing for a fight.”