The fight over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge heated up at a hearing in Anchorage Tuesday over the possibility that a new management plan could put the refuge and its billions of barrels of crude off-limits for good.
At issue is the refuge's 1.5-million-acre coastal plain and whether an updated plan would designate the oil-rich area as wilderness.
The coastal plain -- believed to contain an estimated 11 billion barrels of recoverable oil -- has been a battleground for decades between environmentalists who don't want drilling and oil companies and Alaska officials who see a large, untapped resource that could ease the country's dependence on foreign oil.
Production at Prudhoe Bay, North America's largest oil field, is declining by about 10 percent a year. The refuge's coastal plain, and its large pool of oil just to the east, is enticingly close. It's also onshore.
In the update of the 22-year-old refuge management plan, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman has said the federal agency might recommend the coastal plain be designated as wilderness. If that should happen, it would be off-limits to oil companies, perhaps permanently.
The agency expects the plan to be finalized by 2012.
Alaska's U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich are pressing the agency to remove the wilderness issue from the refuge plan debate, saying in a letter that the agency's "limited financial resources -- and taxpayer dollars -- should not be wasted on such an unproductive exercise."
The senators would rather the federal agency focus its review on managing increased visitors to the 19.6-million-acre refuge in northeast Alaska and changing habitat conditions.
They also want the agency to take a harder look at exploration and to consider the benefits of modern technology and directional drilling, which has less of an above-ground impact.
Pamela Miller, with the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, said what needs to be looked at is the environmental disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. She said this was not the time to be "contemplating BP waltzing into our nation's premier wilderness area."
"You can't have an oil field in wilderness," she said at the public hearing in Anchorage attended by a standing room-only crowd.
Alaska's congressional delegation, Rep. Don Young and Gov. Sean Parnell sent representatives to urge Fish and Wildlife not to take up the issue of wilderness designation.
"Such controversies will distort congressional considerations of the highest potential onshore area for oil development remaining in the United States," said Kevin Banks, director of the state Division of Oil and Gas, speaking on behalf of the governor.
If wilderness designation was recommended, Congress would have to approve.
Pat Garrett of Chugiak, a licensed social worker who has visited Kaktovik, the only village inside the refuge, said she opposes any oil and gas development in the refuge. She said she was worried about the impact on polar bears, which increasingly rely on the refuge's coastal plain for denning because of shrinking sea ice.
"Include that area. Protect that area. We know what is happening to the polar bears," Garrett said.
Tara Sweeney, vice president of external affairs for Arctic Slope Regional Corp., said the federal agency foremost needs to consider the needs of Kaktovik residents.
Designating additional areas as wilderness inside the refuge will further hamper their ability to practice subsistence and live off the land, she said.
It's wrong enough to deny the people who actually live in the area the benefits of oil and gas development but adding a wilderness area on top of that would be "unconscionable," Sweeney said. They will become refugees on their own lands, she added.
"Life is difficult enough with the current wilderness areas," Sweeney said.