Reaction is pouring in after President Obama over the weekend announced his administration was seeking to permanently protect the majority of the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge — about 12 million of 19.8 million acres — from oil and gas exploration.
The coastal plain in the refuge, home to about 200 species, as well as an estimated 10.3 billion barrels of oil (enough to satisfy U.S. consumption for about 18 months), has been “off-limits to development for years,” The Los Angeles Times writes. But:
… the White House move marks a new front in the long-running political and environmental battle over whether to authorize oil production in the refuge.
Only Congress can designate the area as protected wilderness. But even if lawmakers don’t support the measure, officials said, the Interior Department intends to continue barring oil and gas development — along with road-building and almost every other form of development.
As The Washington Post put it:
The move marks the latest instance of Obama’s aggressive use of executive authority to advance his top policy priorities. While only Congress can create a wilderness area, once the federal government identifies a place for that designation, it receives the highest level of protection until Congress acts or a future administration adopts a different approach.
Obama, in a video released Sunday, said: “Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuge is an incredible place — pristine, undisturbed. It supports caribou and polar bears, all manner of marine life, countless species of birds and fish, and for centuries it supported many Alaska Native communities. But it’s very fragile.”
Environmentalists praised the announcement, but Republican lawmakers weren’t happy, particularly Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who leads the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. A statement on the senator’s website was titled “Obama, Jewell Declaring War on Alaska’s Future,” referring to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
“What’s coming is a stunning attack on our sovereignty and our ability to develop a strong economy that allows us, our children and our grandchildren to thrive. It’s clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory. The promises made to us at statehood, and since then, mean absolutely nothing to them. 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 resource at our disposal.”
The White House called her reaction overblown.