Senate Democrats renew battle lines over drilling on ANWR coastal plain

WASHINGTON -- Democratic U.S. senators on Wednesday issued a clear message in the age-old fight over drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Just say no.

Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Edward Markey, D-Mass., introduced a bill Wednesday that would close off the refuge's 1.56 million-acre coastal plain to oil and gas development indefinitely by designating it as a federal wilderness area. Thirty-two Democratic senators joined them as co-sponsors of the bill.

The bill is not going to go anywhere in a Republican-led Congress. But it does send the message that many lawmakers are still eager to make sure any efforts to open the area to drilling remain stalled as well.

Alaska's congressional delegation is unilaterally in favor of allowing drilling in ANWR. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, included it as a priority when she announced her campaign for re-election last month, and she hammered at the Obama administration over it in a recent GOP speech. Independent Gov. Bill Walker has pressed Obama administration officials on the issue in recent meetings, though little is expected to come of that.

On Wednesday, Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Walker, who is in Washington to testify at an energy committee hearing and for the Capitol tree lighting, made their feelings on the matter clear, posting a photo online of them tearing up the bill and dropping it in the trash. They were joined by Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., chair of the environment committee, which has jurisdiction over the Democrats' ANWR bill.

In a statement, Markey said ANWR "is one of the natural wonders of America, worthy of the highest level of protection as wilderness. Its pristine landscape, ecological integrity, wildlife, recreational opportunities and Alaska Native cultural and subsistence values are unmatched."

Bennet likened ANWR to other protected sites -- the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Yosemite Valley in California and the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado -- and touted their value for outdoor recreation. "Sportsmen, birders, and outdoor enthusiasts from across the political spectrum have long supported protections for this iconic area," Bennet said in a statement.

The coastal plains of ANWR are part of the 19.6 million-acre refuge but have a different level of protection -- oil and gas leasing would be allowed if Congress authorizes it. That's not likely to happen anytime soon, but the Democratic senators said Wednesday they want to ensure that the area is cut off to oil and gas production for good.

"Introducing a bill to lock up lands within our state is not a new concept, especially for East Coast liberals like Ed Markey," Rep. Don Young said in reaction to the announcement. "Ed and I have been fighting this issue for years, going back to when he served in the House. He couldn't beat us then -- we passed ANWR legislation 12 separate times -- and he won't beat us now. Energy is crucial for Alaska and the nation. Arbitrarily taking it off the table is absolutely the wrong approach," Young said.

"Let me be clear: This bill will never pass this Congress, and those who are offering it know that," said Sullivan. "The only explanation is that it must be fundraising season again."

"I will do everything in my power to make sure this misguided effort does not advance another inch after today," Murkowski said.

Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, introduced a bill in February that would open 2,000 acres of the non-wilderness portion of the refuge to oil and gas drilling, citing U.S. Geological Survey estimates that it could contain 10.4 billion barrels of oil and 8.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

And "so long as I am here, the only bill related to ANWR that has a chance of passing the Senate will be my bill – not this one," Murkowski said Wednesday. "This effort has failed before, and it will fail again."

The Democrats' bill was introduced with the support of 22 environmental and activist groups, from the Alaska Wilderness League to The Episcopal Church.

Bernadette Demientieff of the Gwich'in Steering Committee -- an Arctic tribal group opposed to drilling in ANWR -- thanked Bennet and Markey "for showing bold leadership" by introducing the bill.

"This bill would ensure that one of the most imperiled pieces of our natural heritage will be protected now and for future generations of Americans," said Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League.

"Reeling back offshore drilling in the Arctic was a big victory, but Alaska's coastal plain still needs protection. Big Oil hasn't given up on projects that threaten polar bears, migratory birds and other wildlife," said Miyoko Sakashita, ocean program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, referring to Shell and Statoil's recent retreat from Arctic waters.

"It's time to permanently ban fossil fuel production in the most threatened areas of this pristine natural habitat," Sakashita said.