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Alaska Governor Pursues New Strategy in Push to Open Arctic Refuge to Drilling

After being frustrated for decades in their efforts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development, Alaska politicians are trying a new approach that may shift the battleground from Congress to the courts.

Buoyed by support from the state’s senators, Gov. Sean Parnell is on a publicity blitz touting a 7-year plan to study and explore oil and gas resources in the refuge known as ANWR. His campaign is premised on what he believes is a requirement, set in law by Congress 33 years ago, that the Interior Department must allow him to conduct a three-dimensional seismic study to determine how much oil resides beneath the region’s coastal plains.

The Obama administration reads that law differently and is poised to deny the Republican governor’s request for a permit to study the resources in ANWR. That rejection is likely to trigger a legal battle for the future of that section of Alaska’s North Slope.

Though oil and gas industry supporters and environmentalists have been at loggerheads for years, the upcoming release of a conservation plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides a new battleground. The plan is likely to recommend that ANWR’s coastal plains be designated as wilderness, putting the crude oil believed to lie beneath the surface off-limits for development.

Congress has the final word on whether to designate the area as wilderness, but drilling proponents say the Fish and Wildlife Service recommendation will ensure that the land remains untouched because lawmakers are unlikely to muster enough support to overturn it.

The fight over energy development dates back more than three decades, when President Jimmy Carter signed legislation (PL 96-487) in 1980 creating the refuge. The law allowed for oil and gas exploration in a portion of the refuge, but only if Congress authorized it.

Even at the height of his powers as Appropriations Committee chairman, the late Ted Stevens of Alaska — the longest-serving Republican senator ever — was unable to win enactment of legislation opening the refuge. Budget reconciliation legislation in 1996 that would have allowed energy development in ANWR passed the Republican-controlled Congress but was vetoed by President Bill Clinton.

One of the important questions in the ANWR debate has been exactly how much oil could be recovered if drilling were allowed and what effect that might have on world markets. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said Parnell’s plan would help answer that question and is a “sound proposal to move forward with greatly improved science and technology.”

The state’s senior senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski, also supports the study and has helped Parnell amplify his message in Washington.

“Instead of trying to lock up our resources, we should develop them as part of a balanced energy plan,” said Murkowski, the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Parnell touted his plan in May at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event and made it the focus of a Republican response to one of the president’s weekly addresses last month.

“The debate on ANWR has not kept up with the technology,” he said at a news conference this month. “Why wouldn’t you want to know what’s out there if it has limited impact?”

Parnell has offered $50 million to begin the seismic study. After Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rebuffed his request for federal support in the effort, he threatened to go it alone.

Parnell still needs permission from the Interior Department, which oversees the fish and wildlife agency, to conduct the study. But Parnell has argued that the 1980 law entrusting the federal government to manage this region requires the administration to approve his plan.

“We think there will be some explaining to do if the federal government looks at this and says no,” he said, suggesting that a lawsuit against the federal government is the likely next step.

For her part, Jewell reiterated her opposition to the plan in a letter this week.

“That is not something we support,” she said.

A legal battle could stall wilderness designation for ANWR and potentially allow time for a drilling-friendly administration to change course.

In Congress, both sides are determined to stand their ground. While Alaska’s delegation, along with oil and gas industry supporters, have not succeeded in opening the area to drilling, members who side with environmentalists have been unable to permanently take oil and gas development in the refuge off the table. Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., introduced such a bill (HR 139) when he was in the House and a member of its Energy and Commerce panel.

Environmentalists contend that Parnell is misreading the law and Congress did not intend to allow drilling when it moved to preserve this unique national landmark. They note that a seismic study was already conducted in the 1980s and that a second one would unnecessarily damage the pristine land.

“You don’t get a second bite at that apple,” Lydia Weiss, Arctic Refuge campaign director at the Alaska Wilderness League, said in an interview.

Parnell’s camp responded that the initial study is archaic and that advances in seismic technology make it possible to conduct a more accurate study with limited impact on the land.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 5.7 billion to 16 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil may be there.

Proponents say the estimate is likely conservative and that drilling in ANWR could offer the country a potential energy source worth $1 trillion that could free the nation from dependency on foreign oil. Critics say the volume of recoverable oil would have little impact on world markets and does not justify the potential environmental harm.

“It’s America’s national wildlife refuge,” Weiss said. “It doesn’t just belong to Alaska, and it doesn’t just belong to Alaska’s senators.”