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Holiday Showdown With Republicans? Will President Obama Move to Protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from Drilling?


A quarter of the U.S. Senate has asked President Obama to "grant the Arctic Refuge the strongest possible protections." U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo.

With the Republican Party sending various signals that it won't work with President Obama, would the president be willing to return the favor by protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from energy development by declaring it a national monument?

A group of senators certainly hopes so.

In a letter (attached below) sent to the president last week the 25 senators didn't specifically ask him to turn the refuge into a monument, but rather asked him to "grant the Arctic Refuge the strongest possible protections."

Since only Congress can designate wilderness, what other tool would President Obama have other than to turn to the Antiquities Act of 1906 and use an executive order to lend the refuge monument status?

The only snag with the Antiquities Act in this case, though, is that the president would need Congress to endorse that move. After President Carter in 1978 proclaimed 15 national monuments in Alaska after Congress had adjourned without passing a major Alaska lands bill, Congress returned to session and passed a revised version of the bill in 1980 incorporating most of these national monuments into national parks and preserves. But at the same time it curtailed further presidential use of the Antiquities Act in Alaska without Congress' approval.

In theory, since the Democrats hold the majority in both houses of Congress until year's end, President Obama could make such a declaration and get the necessary congressional backing, but that could be a long shot.

Energy companies long have eyed the refuge for drilling. But until Congress authorizes such drilling, they'll have to wait. Now, with the GOP about to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Democratic majority in the Senate shrinking, there are concerns that the next Congress could approve energy exploration in the Arctic refuge.

In beseeching the president to protect the refuge's 19 million acres, the 25 senators state that the refuge is "truly one of America's greatest wild places. Its coastal plain hosts an amazing diversity of wildlife including polar bears, grizzly bears, muskoxen, wolverines and over a hundred thousand caribou. This 'biological heart' of the refuge is connected to the entire country, as well as to countries all over the world. Every year, birds that begin their lives on the coastal plain migrate to all 50 states and across six continents, before heading back to the Arctic, where the cycle of life begins again."

With the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to be marked on December 6, the senators see that as a fitting date for President Obama to lend more protection for the landscape from energy development.

Of course, the president already has been put on notice by Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee not to designate any national monuments without consulting both the general public and Congress. And Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Washington, who hopes to take over the chairmanship of that committee, is on record as saying that he'll be looking at all forms of energy development in the new Congress.

Alaska's Democratic senator, Mark Begich, also opposes turning the refuge into a monument.

“This is another misguided attempt to lock up ANWR by Senator (Joe) Lieberman and others who truly don’t understand its potential to help bring national and economic security to our country,” Sen. Begich said in response to the letter to the president. “The vast majority of ANWR is already off limits to development, but Congress specifically set aside 1.5 million acres in the 1002 area for oil and gas exploration. It has enormous potential and should be part of a national energy plan for our country.

“We now know you can use directional drilling to extract oil and gas with virtually no surface disturbance," the senator added. "We should be discussing how to make that happen, and reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, rather than writing more letters that paint ANWR as this last bastion of wilderness. I would invite all of these senators to come to Alaska and see first-hand how we do exploration correctly on the North Slope, the millions of acres already protected in ANWR, and the relatively small area of ANWR that would ever be touched for development.”

Signing on to the letter along with Sen. Lieberman were Sens. John Kerry, Mark Udall, Tom Udall, Al Franken, Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, Maria Cantwell, Tom Harkin, Russell Feingold, Michael F. Bennet, Richard Lugar, Sheldon Whitehouse, Frank Lautenberg, Benjamin Cardin, Ron Wyden, Patty Murray, Jeff Merkley, Richard Durbin, Christopher Dodd, Jeanne Shaheen, Robert Menendez, Thomas Carper, Debbie Stabanow, and Jack Reed.

Traveler footnote: Whether any oil or natural gas ever produced from ANWR would help reduce the country's dependence on foreign imports depends on whom the companies would sell it to. It could just as easily be sold to Asian countries.

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Can President Obama use the Antiquities Act in Alaska? Following Jimmy Carter's use of the Antiquities Act to create several National Monuments in 1978, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act was passed and requires Congressional ratification for the use of the Antiquities Act in Alaska for withdrawals of greater than 5,000 acres.

Thanks for the clarification.

Very good point, Stampling. That entirely slipped by me (of course). That said, in theory he could make the declaration, and the Democratic majorities in both houses could sign off on it before the session ends. I'll make that point in the above story.

Kudos to Sen. Begich for using common sense. The frozen tundra that is the coastal plain has probably never been seen by the 25 fools that signed this letter.

I don't know about "dependence" on foreign imports pe se. It costs more to transport oil and finished petroleum products to the US mainland from Alaska than it would to Asian markets. Oil is also a fungible commodity where prices are based on overall world supply/demand, and it makes sense to buy from the closest sources if you need to import. For the US that would be Canada and Latin America. Most people don't seem to understand that Middle Eastern oil primarily gets sent to European markets with only a tiny fraction sent to the US. However we have an interest in protecting those sources because it affects a larger world market.

Of course I see the big tankers with Alaskan crude unloading in Richmond, California. I think it's still mandated that Alaskan crude can't be exported outside the US.

I will also point out that I'm not a fan of opening up ANWR to drilling. I hope it doesn't happen.

ANWR should be open for drilling as we need the oil and the jobs this would create. Oil from Alaska does not cost any more to transport than oil from Mexico or Canada as stated above. Oil is not like steers where you can identify which steer is yours by the brand. Once in the pipeline, oil becomes a commodity and is sold to consumers along the line. Oil in a pipeline could come from anywhere.

The US needs to open this field for national security, to reduce the cost of fuel, and to create high paying jobs. Electric cars, hybrids, and nat gas cars will take decades to replace gassers and in the meantime we will have to pay $5-6 a gallon gas. This price is just around the corner unless we act now and this high fuel cost will cause even more unemployment and cause inflation.

Business and the environment can coexist if the environmental extremists stay out of the decision.

Concerned Taxpayer:
ANWR should be open for drilling as we need the oil and the jobs this would create. Oil from Alaska does not cost any more to transport than oil from Mexico or Canada as stated above. Oil is not like steers where you can identify which steer is yours by the brand. Once in the pipeline, oil becomes a commodity and is sold to consumers along the line. Oil in a pipeline could come from anywhere.

Oil from Alaska isn't really piped in. Oil can be identified by its chemical composition. A refinery geared to process light sweet crude probably would have a tough time with heavier Alaskan crude oil. That extra-heavy Venezuelan crude oil is among the hardest to process, and some gulf oil refineries specialize in it.

The info I read is that Alaskan crude is more expensive to transport depending on where it is headed.

YPW...Alaska oil is piped (Alaska Pipeline) to Anchorage where it is then shipped to various ports. It is unloaded and placed in pipelines and transported throughout the US along with other crude from various production fields.

Alaska oil is not as thick as Venezuelan oil and can be refined in just about any refinery in the US. There are only a few refineries that can refine the thick Venezuelan and shale oil and you are correct most are located in the Gulf States. Shale oil is just about as thick as Venezuelan and requires a special production process.

Oil from ANWR will be less costly than shale oil and the infrastructure already exist to begin production. We need to open ANWR for immediate production. Again, oil production and the environment can co-exist.

Yes - I do understand the Trans Alaskan Pipeline exists. However - I looked up a report (granted from 1995) that the tanker transportation costs from the Alaskan port (I think it was Valdez) to Asia were considerably lower than to West Coast ports.

Frankly I don't think opening up ANWR is going to make that much of a difference.

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