U.S. President Barack Obama will propose expanding the protected area of Alaska’s Arctic refuge by 12.28 million acres (4.97 million hectares), including the state’s Coastal Plain where oil and gas are drilled, the Interior Department said on Sunday.
The proposal to expand the part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge designated as wilderness faces an uphill battle in Congress, where Republicans in control of both chambers oppose curbs to oil production, and drew immediate criticism.
The wilderness designation, the highest level of federal protection under which oil and gas drilling is banned, would be extended to 19.8 million acres under the proposal, the Interior Department said.
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska called the Obama administration’s move a politically motivated attack on Alaska. On Friday, she had introduced a bill that would have permitted oil production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
“It’s clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory. The promises made to us at statehood, and since then, mean absolutely nothing to them. I cannot understand why this administration is willing to negotiate with Iran, but not Alaska,” Murkowski said in a statement on Sunday.
“We will fight back with every resource at our disposal,” she said.
The area in question, a narrow strip wedged between the peaks of the Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean, is a vital site for polar bears and the migratory Porcupine caribou herd which raises young there.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the coastal plain holds 10.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil.
The Washington Post, which first reported the story, said the Interior Department would also place part of the Arctic Ocean off limits to drilling and is considering additional limits on oil and gas production in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska.
The announcement is one of a series that the Interior Department will make this week that will affect Alaska’s oil and gas production, the Post said.
(Reporting by Julia Edwards; Editing by Doina Chiacu)
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