Public weighs in on the battle over the ANWR coastal plain

DEBATE: Critics fear the loss of potentially oil-rich plain.

Anchorage Daily NewsSeptember 21, 2011 

A battle over whether the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should be set aside as wilderness -- or eventually opened up for oil exploration -- brought dozens of people with polar-opposite views to a public hearing in Anchorage on Wednesday.

On the table is a proposal to expand the wilderness designation that already protects a large chunk of ANWR to cover the potentially oil-rich coastal plain. That would add another 1.4 million acres of wilderness to the existing eight million acres in the refuge -- and some say would effectively put drilling off-limits. Other options being considered would add even more wilderness.

Wilderness supporters say the designation is essential to preserving a place some Alaska Native people call sacred and that others say is a wild land too unique to ever be developed. But opponents say it would lock up land that could become Alaska's next big drilling mecca, hurting efforts to create high-paying jobs, generate revenue for government and bring new life to an oil industry in decline. All that would be off-limits if the land were wilderness, opponents say.

A different slice of the long-running debate took place in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. Alaska's U.S. senators, congressman and governor all testified before the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee in support of drilling on the refuge's coastal plain.

The controversy over drilling in ANWR has divided environmentalists and development forces for decades. As a compromise when the refuge was created in 1980, the coastal plain was set aside for study of oil development and other parts were declared wilderness.

Even without the wilderness label on the coastal plain, drilling would require specific congressional approval. While the U.S. House has backed drilling a number of times, only once, in 1995, did an ANWR-drilling measure clear both the House and Senate, and then-President Clinton vetoed it.

On the flip side, Congress also would have to sign off on any new wilderness designation, which is what was being debated in Anchorage. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is updating and revising its comprehensive conservation plan that guides management of the entire refuge, not just the coastal plain.

None of the options that the Fish and Wildlife Service is floating include oil and gas development. That's because the purpose of the refuge, as laid out in federal law, does not include such development, said refuge manager Richard Voss.

The refuge is supposed to preserve unique wildlife, wilderness and recreational values, conserve fish and wildlife populations, ensure subsistence and preserve water quality, under the law.

The wilderness areas should be places of solitude and adventure "governed by the rhythms of nature and less by the hand of man," Voss said.

Dozens came to the Fish and Wildlife Service public hearing at Loussac Library.

A number of wilderness supporters spoke about the importance of the coastal plain as calving grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd that many Native people rely on for subsistence.

Clarence Alexander is a member of the Gwich'in Steering Committee that represents Native people whose ancestors have called the area home for 20,000 years.

"I do not believe in developing on the refuge, period," Alexander testified. He said he fears degradation of habitat.

Lorraine Netro came to the hearing from Old Crow, in the Yukon territory, and told the Fish and Wildlife Service officials that her people have worked relentlessly to protect the land for future generations. The caribou calving grounds should never be developed, she said.

Nina John of Arctic Village said her three boys love to eat caribou. They call the fat "candy," she said.

"It's like our main meal every day," John said. She's against drilling in ANWR. "If it does happen, what will my kids enjoy to eat?"

Some spoke of last year's Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, and said no one can assure them of safe drilling. Some environmentalists said they've never been to the refuge, but treasure it as a special place just the same.

Testifying on the other side were industry representatives, Parnell administration officials and state legislators.

"What we're talking about is locking up the largest potential resource in the country forever. I want to say that again. Locking it up, forever. No option to come back and drill later," said state Rep. Craig Johnson, a Republican from Anchorage and part of the House leadership.

Still, as federal managers understand it, Congress could later change the terms and allow drilling.

Bill Barron, director of the state Division of Oil and Gas, said Alaska has a proven record of responsible oil development. Technological advances, such as extended reach drilling, means the footprint would be small if development occurred on the coastal plain, affecting just 2,000 acres out of 19 million acres of land in the refuge.

There is a massive amount of oil there, Barron said. Some estimates put it at 16 billion barrels. Yet none of the federal options include resource development.

"This is an egregious mistake, and Alaska takes strong exception to it," Barron said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is taking public comment on its draft plan until Nov. 15. To see the plan or comment on it, go to arctic.fws.gov/ccp.htm.

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