The Long, Long Battle for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Can President Obama finally end the debate over drilling in northeastern Alaska?

“What to do about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?”

This question comes up during every presidency, especially at the end of a term. For more than 30 years, presidents and Congress have been arguing over whether the northeastern edge of Alaska is one of the most precious and unspoiled places on earth, or a resource to be exploited for oil. Here we are again. President Obama is pushing Congress to designate 12 million acres of the refuge as a wilderness area, which would preclude drilling on the 1.5-million-acre Coastal Plain. Could this finally put the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge off-limits? It’s an exciting prospect, but the political history of the refuge suggests you shouldn’t wager on it. Here’s a quick recap.

March 30, 1867

The United States buys Alaska (previously known as “Russian America”) for $7.2 million. Even then, many politicians saw dollar signs in the snow. At the time, the New York Tribune , “[Alaska] includes a great number of islands, and is of the highest importance as a naval depot, and for strategic purposes. It is a valuable fur country, and embraces a vast section of territory, the possession of which will influence in our favor the vast trade of the Pacific….The fisheries are very extensive, but the principal commercial wealth of the country is in its fur trade, which would, henceforth, be altogether controlled by American merchants.”

Caribou crossing a river during summer migration
Ingo Arndt/Minden Pictures

Summer 1956

Wilderness Society’s president, Olaus Murie, and his wife, Mardy, conduct an expedition to Alaska’s Brooks Range with biologists George Schaller and Robert Krear. After months of surveying the land and studying the region’s wildlife, the Muries begin pushing for federal protections of the Alaskan Arctic. The couple was later instrumental in the passing of the 1964 Wilderness Act.

An Alaskan tundra wolf leaps through blowing snow near the Brooks Range.

December 6, 1960

Public Land Order 2214 establishes the National Arctic Wildlife Range. Industry and environmental interests had been feuding over the fate of the region since the late 1920s, when conservationist Robert Marshall began campaigning to set aside northern Alaska as permanently wild. People like George L. Collins and Lowell Sumner of the National Park Service argued that the best use of the land was purely for wilderness and recreation, but both military and business leaders wanted the land for oil and gas exploration. (In his 1961 cautionary farewell speech about the burgeoning “military-industrial complex,” President Eisenhower warned against “plundering…the precious resources of tomorrow.” Perhaps the conflict in northeastern Alaska was on his mind.) In PLO 2214, Secretary of the Interior Fred Seaton set aside 8.9 million acres in northeast Alaska. The order, issued one year after Alaska became a state, withdrew the area from “all forms of appropriation under the public land laws, including the mining but not the mineral leasing laws.” Because mineral leasing includes fossil fuels, that order kicked the oil can down the road.

December 2, 1980

President Carter signs the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, expanding the range to 19.3 million acres and renaming it the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The law mandated wildlife studies and an oil and gas assessment of the Coastal Plain. In a compromise with the lame duck president, the law noted that no exploratory drilling or production could occur without further congressional action. That provision, giving Congress the power to decide, is what turned the fate of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge into a decades-long saga.

April 20, 1987

Secretary of the Interior Donald Hodel recommends that Congress open the Coastal Plain to oil and gas development. The U.S. Department of the Interior estimated a 19 percent chance of finding economically recoverable oil, and, if found, the mean amount would be 3.23 billion barrels (a 200-day supply of oil at the time of the congressional report’s publication). At the time, however, only one exploratory well had been drilled in 1985 by Chevron and BP, and the companies didn’t publicly state what, if anything, they discovered. (ARCO did find oil 16 miles offshore in federal waters.)

March 24, 1989

The Exxon Valdez runs aground, spilling at least 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. The cleanup demonstrated the difficulties of remedying a major oil spill in Alaskan waters, which are considerably tamer than those of the Arctic, and the extreme limitations of available technology. Crews used high-pressure, hot-water washers to blast oil off of rocks along the shore, a tactic that badly damaged plants and animals, with long-lasting impacts. The crude killed more than 250,000 seabirds, and sea otter populations took 25 years to return to pre-spill levels. Herring and other fish still have not recovered. Eight days prior to the disaster, a Senate committee had approved oil production on the Coastal Plain, but the spill increased scrutiny on Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling.

Oil spills from the Exxon Valdez on the morning of March 24, 1989.
Erik Hill/Anchorage Daily News/MCT

December 6, 1995

President Clinton vetoes the Balanced Budget Act. As the shock of the Valdez faded, pro-oil legislators attempted to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling by bypassing conservation-minded filibusters. After Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, they passed an appropriations bill that could not be filibustered. President Clinton, however, vetoed the bill, dealing a blow to House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.” Protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was on President Clinton’s list of 82 (!) reasons for the veto, along with his objections to over-aggressive tax cuts and threats to Social Security and Medicare. It was the closest oil companies have gotten to the Coastal Plain.

December 21, 2005

A filibuster blocks the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The year after President George W. Bush’s reelection was the high-water mark of his attempts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's Coastal Plain. As Congress attempted a decade earlier, Republicans included a provision in a budget bill, only to be thwarted by stiff resistance by approximately 20 lawmakers in their own party who refused to support drilling in the refuge. Desperate to deliver on promised spending cuts, Alaska Senator Ted Stevens tried a risky gambit by moving the provision out of the budget bill and into the Defense spending bill. It proved a tactical error, because the Defense bill was vulnerable to filibuster, and that’s just what happened. An infuriated Stevens railed at his colleagues, “We know this Arctic. You don't know the Arctic at all,” before vowing to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge “however long” it took. When Stevens left office in 2009, he was the longest serving Republican in Senate history, but he never managed to get drills into the refuge.

A musk oxen on the tundra

March 13, 2008

The year before he left office, Stevens, along with fellow Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski, tries a different tack, introducing a bill that would open the Coastal Plain to drilling only if the price of oil should remain at $125 per barrel or above for five consecutive days. Murkowski even sweetened the pot by dedicating the royalty revenues to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and child nutrition. Although oil prices exceeded that threshold shortly after the bill’s introduction, peaking at more than $136, Murkowski’s colleagues weren’t interested in her contingency wheeling and dealing.

January 25, 2015

Shortly after two bills that would designate the Coastal Plain as wilderness are introduced to the House and Senate, the Department of the Interior recommends designating 12 million more acres of the refuge, including the Coastal Plain, as wilderness. The DOI starts planning to manage the lands as such, and President Obama calls on the current Republican-led Congress to move forward with the designation to make those protections permanent.

A polar bear and her cubs resting on Barter Island near Kaktovik
Ray Bulson/MediaBakery

February 26, 2016

The House of Representatives votes on the Arctic Refuge Wilderness bill. While the legislation did not pass, it was the first time Congress had ever voted on an Arctic National Wildlife Refuge wilderness bill. Hopefully, the refuge will get another shot in Congress before Obama leaves office.

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