Jenkins: Next battle in ANWR war just beginning

By Paul Jenkins |

Environmentalists and their minions in Congress are grinding their teeth today at the successful inclusion of an Arctic National Wildlife Refuge oil development provision in the sweeping Republican tax reform legislation recently signed into law.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, repeatedly over the years had offered legislation to open a tiny slice of ANWR only to be thwarted again and again by Democrats. This time, she and the rest of Alaska’s delegation knocked it out of the park.

Despite the success, Alaskans should know it is only a first step and be prepared for a scorched-earth fight from those who, for decades, have managed to short-circuit attempts to develop the refuge’s wind-blown 1.5-million-acre coastal plain. In their view, the 11 billion barrels of recoverable crude oil believed pooled beneath the refuge’s barren tundra should stay put.

It should be noted a single exploratory well, known as KIC-1, was drilled in ANWR in the mid-1980s by ChevronTexaco. It was plugged, abandoned and dismantled. What was discovered is a closely held secret at the request of ANWR leaseholders ChevronTexaco and BP Exploration (Alaska).

Proposals to drill in the refuge over the years have been clarion calls to battle for those who want to protect all of it as wilderness. Take, for instance, a recent Washington Post editorial:

“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge deserves special protection. Known as ‘America’s Serengeti,’ it is one of the last pristine wildernesses in the world, an expanse of rivers, permafrost and ocean-side habitat that teems with life. Caribou, polar bears and musk oxen depend on this untouched land. Birds migrate to the refuge from all over the world. Whales live just offshore. This zone is off-limits to development.”

High-flown hyperbole aside, the refuge’s coastal plain is not off-limits to development.

The area that eventually would become the refuge first blipped on conservationists’ radar in a 1953 feature article in the journal of the Sierra Club, titled, “Northeast Arctic: The Last Great Wilderness.”
President Dwight Eisenhower’s interior secretary, Fred Seaton, in 1960 carved out 9 million acres of Alaska’s northeast corner for the Arctic National Wildlife Range. Oil drilling was barred.

Congress created what now is the refuge in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980. The legislation more than doubled its size and designated as wilderness 8 million acres of its 19.6 million acres — a chunk of land nearly the size of Maine. Another 9.5 million acres received refuge status. Lawmakers withheld any decision on the coastal plain’s 1.5 million acres — the so-called 10-02 area — but barred oil and gas development there pending study.

ANILCA directed Interior to research the environmental consequences and report to Congress. An environmental impact statement completed in 1987 — and five years in the making — concluded there would be no significant adverse effects on wildlife if the plain were developed responsibly. Congress in 1995 voted to open the 10-02 area, but then-President Bill Clinton vetoed the measure.

This time around, Murkowski’s measure calls for at least two lease sales over the next decade in the refuge’s coastal plain, with each sale containing 400,000 acres at a minimum. Surface development is limited to 2,000 acres. Lease royalties are anticipated to generate about $2 billion over the next decade, with Alaska and the federal government splitting the revenue.

Getting the measure through Congress and signed into law was just another step toward development. There are going to be myriad knock-down, drag-out fights before ANWR gives up its first drop of oil. There will be delaying actions, lawsuits and all manner of silliness.Alaskans — about 70 percent of whom support ANWR development — and the nation will be treated to the same threadbare arguments against responsible development.

The caribou will die, opponents will say, though they thrived during Prudhoe Bay’s development. Polar bears will become extinct. Nesting birds will move to Norway. There will be the standard green propaganda photos and videos of the refuge’s beautiful southern locales again being passed off to the rubes as the windblown tundra of the barren coastal plain.

Mindless opposition to development ignores decades of Arctic exploration and production without an environmental catastrophe on land, or damage to wildlife. It ignores giant leaps forward in drilling technology and mapping. It also ignores the obvious: Point Thomson is being developed without a hitch only 2 miles from the western border of the 10-02 area.

Alaska, running chronic deficits, clearly could use the money, the jobs and the economic stimulus development of the coastal plain would generate. It needs oil for the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. If it takes a long, tough fight to get it, then so be it.

Let opponents grind away.

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