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Alaska Officials Continue to Push Dead-end Proposal for Development in the Arctic Refuge

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In what could only be described as a political stunt, Alaska Governor Sean Parnell recently introduced a "proposal" that would pave the way for oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's Coastal Plain. We applaud the Department of the Interior for soundly rejecting this proposal and reaffirming that only Congress has the power to approve such requests.

On May 20, Governor Parnell and Alaska Dept. of Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan rolled out their proposal during both a press conference at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's DC office and in a letter sent director to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. Their plan offered $50 million in state funds to conduct harmful 3-D seismic oil testing in the Arctic Refuge -- as long as the federal government and private industry agreed to match that pledge with $50M each.

This proposal was dead on arrival, not to mention illegal. First, under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), only Congress has the power to authorize oil and gas development in the Coastal Plain. In 2001, the Department of the Interior (DOI) issued an opinion concluding that DOI has no legal authority to restart exploration in the Arctic Refuge.

More recently, members of Congress addressed this issue as well. In a letter to Interior Secretary Jewell in support of their Wilderness bill for the Coastal Plain (H.R.139), Reps. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Mike Fitzpatrick (R-PA) affirmed that any new drilling activities in the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge would be illegal without additional congressional action.

Commissioner Sullivan took exception to the Markey/Fitzpatrick letter, stating: "The last time I checked, Rep. Markey doesn't represent Alaska." Well, while he's technically right, his point is irrelevant. Despite the "stay out of Alaska" rhetoric that continues to come out of certain Alaska elected officials, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is federal public land. It is America's Refuge, and its management and preservation happens at the federal level. For decades, that support for preservation has been bipartisan and bicameral.

So while the proposal's legal problem ensured that it would go nowhere, it's hardly the proposal's only flaw. Alaskans are experiencing real hardships due to budgetary cuts and the sequester -- losing teachers, cuts to police and fire services, and increased difficulty in obtaining health services for Alaska Natives -- and throwing $50 million towards drilling in an area that the oil industry has shown little interest in suggests that the Governor's priorities are all wrong. This won't be popular in Alaska, and it certainly isn't popular in a sequester budget environment with an Administration who is on record opposing drilling in the Refuge.

Despite these concerns, Parnell and Sullivan have repeatedly pushed the proposal: Governor Parnell touted the plan and his letter to Secretary Jewell in a recent weekly Republican address, and Commissioner Sullivan injected the proposal into a recent (and completely unrelated) hearing regarding the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. More recently, it was reported that Parnell, Sullivan and the state of Alaska would submit an application for approval directly to DOI for acceptance of an exploration plan -- the same type of plan that DOI is already on record as stating that it cannot approve, a position it recently reaffirmed in a letter sent directly to Governor Parnell.

The Arctic Refuge is an iconic place, an untouched national treasure, and the Coastal Plain truly is its biological heart -- this is public land where wildlife ranging from caribou to polar bears to an endless array of migratory birds return year after year to bring their young into the world, and a place so revered by Alaska Natives that words hardly do it justice.

It was a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, who first protected what we now know as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 1960, and Democrats and Republicans have worked together to protect it from development ever since. No $50 million offer can undo more than 50 years of conservation history. We thank Secretary Jewell and the Interior Department for rejecting the Parnell proposal and upholding the Obama administration's commitment to keep drilling in the Refuge "off the table."

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