President Obama’s plan to lock up Alaska’s vast energy supply has sparked a furious backlash on Capitol Hill and prompted allegations that the White House has declared “war” on the state, but lawmakers have few options to fight back and even a Republican president in 2017 could struggle to undo the administration’s latest environmental offensive.
The plan, rolled out by the White House as Mr. Obama visited India, centers on legislation to designate more than 12 million acres of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness and forever off limits to oil drilling, which remains a hot-button political issue both in Alaska and around the nation. Efforts to open ANWR, a 19.8 million-acre swath in northern Alaska, to drilling have failed for decades.
On a parallel track, the president’s Interior Department released a new “comprehensive conservation plan” for ANWR and reportedly could take more steps to limit oil-and-gas drilling both on and off Alaska’s shores.
Among other things, the conservation plan calls for more federal monitoring of wildlife habitat and gives the administration greater power to limit activities such as the use of motor vehicles.
While virtually nothing regarding ANWR will change in the short term, the announcement represents the latest in a series of executive actions by Mr. Obama on the environmental and climate change fronts. It also sets up a potentially nasty political fight with Republicans, led by Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who for years have fought to open ANWR’s oil reserves to drilling.
The president cast the plan as necessary to protect one of the world’s most sensitive habitats.
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“Alaska’s National Wildlife Refuge is an incredible place — pristine, undisturbed. It supports caribou and polar bears, all manner of marine life But it’s very fragile,” he said in a short video announcing the steps.
While lawmakers can and almost surely will stop Mr. Obama’s plan to permanently designate most of ANWR as wilderness, taking apart the updated conservation plan may be a much heavier lift.
The Interior Department, for example, says the plan will guide the federal government’s approach to ANWR “for the next 15 years.”
White House counselor John Podesta told reporters Monday the plan will stand through the next administration.
“Yes, the conservation plan will certainly carry through and will be in place. The last time a full conservation plan was put in place was in 1988, so you do the math — it takes a while to do the studies and management tasking at the Department of Interior to create a new conservation plan,” Mr. Podesta said.
He also downplayed the outrage expressed by Ms. Murkowski, freshman Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan and others in the GOP.
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Republicans already are planning how best to take apart the president’s plan. They began on Sunday with a verbal assault on Mr. Obama, the Interior Department and the administration’s broader policies on energy and the environment.
“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,” Ms. Murkowski said in a statement. “I cannot understand why this administration is willing to negotiate with Iran, but not Alaska. But we will not be run over like this.”
Mr. Sullivan said the proposed actions amount to a “war against Alaskan families.”
“We will defeat their lawless attempt to designate ANWR as a wilderness, as well as their ultimate goal of making Alaska one big national park,” he said.
Some specialists say Mr. Obama ultimately is pursuing a two-pronged strategy — make environmental supporters happy by calling on Congress to create a massive section of wilderness while also setting up new federal red tape that can’t easily be undone by the next Oval Office occupant.
“This is something they’ve wanted to do for a long time,” said Dan Kish, senior vice president for policy at the conservative Institute for Energy Research.