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Obama Administration Moves to Ban Drilling in Arctic Refuge




administration is moving this week to designate areas of Alaska off limits to oil and natural gas drilling in its latest effort to bolster its environmental legacy. The Interior Department announced on Sunday that it was proposing to preserve as wilderness nearly 13 million acres of land in the 19.8 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, including 1.5 million acres of coastal plains that is believed to have rich oil and natural gas resources. Later this week, the department also is slated to propose a draft offshore leasing plan that is expected to include more limits on future oil and gas production in Alaska. The efforts are drawing a strong rebuke from congressional Republicans. Sen.

Lisa Murkowski

(R., Alaska) vowed to fight the administration’s moves from her positions heading both the Senate Energy and

Natural Resources Committee and the appropriations subcommittee responsible for funding the Interior Department. “It’s clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory,” Ms. Murkowski said in a statement Sunday after speaking by phone with Interior Secretary

Sally Jewell

on Friday. “But we will not be run over like this. We will fight back with every resource at our disposal.” While setting aside lands as wilderness requires congressional approval—something this administration is unlikely to get with both chambers controlled by Republicans—the proposed move puts the area into a state of de facto designation as wilderness and would prevent drilling, an Interior Department spokeswoman said.


Alaska’s oil and gas production has dropped nearly 75% since its peak in the 1980s. North Dakota surpassed Alaska two years ago as the nation’s second-largest oil producer, behind Texas. The Interior Department is expected to block parts of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off the coast of Alaska for oil and gas development as part of the offshore leasing plan it releases every five years, said

Robert Dillon,

a spokesman for Ms. Murkowski. This proposal, to be presented this week, isn’t expected to affect current plans to drill in the region by


Shell Oil Co. and


though the long-term impacts are unclear, Mr. Dillon said. According to the Interior Department, more than seven million acres of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are listed as wilderness, which is the federal government’s highest designation of protection. Oil and gas drilling is prohibited in the refuge based on a law passed in 1980, and Sunday’s announcement would provide another layer of protection. “Pristine, undisturbed, it supports caribou and polar bears, all matter of marine life, countless species of birds and fish,” President Barack Obama said in a video message Sunday. ”And for centuries it’s supported many Alaskan native communities, but it’s very fragile.” Sunday’s announcement is the latest in a series of steps the Obama administration has taken in the last couple of months to protect the environment, address climate change and regulate the nation’s oil and natural gas industry, particularly in and around Alaska. In another video message posted in December, Mr. Obama said he was indefinitely blocking any oil and gas drilling in Bristol Bay, in Southwestern Alaska. That announcement was relatively noncontroversial compared with the news this week. Companies aren’t currently drilling in the 32.5-million acre region and don’t have a lot of interest in doing so. The Interior Department also is expected to propose in the coming weeks new drilling regulations tailored to the harsh weather conditions of the Arctic. On a broader front, the Interior Department’s five-year plan is expected to offer a window into how supportive the Obama administration will be of new offshore drilling. The last time the administration issued such a plan, the onshore boom of shale oil and natural gas hadn’t yet fully developed. Experts and lobbyists following the proposal say the administration could open up areas along the East Coast because policy makers from those states, such as Virginia, support such a move. Also, earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to regulate for the first time methane emissions from the oil and gas sector. Write to Amy Harder at [email protected]

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