With the Republican Party sending various signals that it won't work with President Obama, would the president be willing to return the favor by protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from energy development by declaring it a national monument?
A group of senators certainly hopes so.
In a letter (attached below) sent to the president last week the 25 senators didn't specifically ask him to turn the refuge into a monument, but rather asked him to "grant the Arctic Refuge the strongest possible protections."
Since only Congress can designate wilderness, what other tool would President Obama have other than to turn to the Antiquities Act of 1906 and use an executive order to lend the refuge monument status?
The only snag with the Antiquities Act in this case, though, is that the president would need Congress to endorse that move. After President Carter in 1978 proclaimed 15 national monuments in Alaska after Congress had adjourned without passing a major Alaska lands bill, Congress returned to session and passed a revised version of the bill in 1980 incorporating most of these national monuments into national parks and preserves. But at the same time it curtailed further presidential use of the Antiquities Act in Alaska without Congress' approval.
In theory, since the Democrats hold the majority in both houses of Congress until year's end, President Obama could make such a declaration and get the necessary congressional backing, but that could be a long shot.
Energy companies long have eyed the refuge for drilling. But until Congress authorizes such drilling, they'll have to wait. Now, with the GOP about to take control of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Democratic majority in the Senate shrinking, there are concerns that the next Congress could approve energy exploration in the Arctic refuge.
In beseeching the president to protect the refuge's 19 million acres, the 25 senators state that the refuge is "truly one of America's greatest wild places. Its coastal plain hosts an amazing diversity of wildlife including polar bears, grizzly bears, muskoxen, wolverines and over a hundred thousand caribou. This 'biological heart' of the refuge is connected to the entire country, as well as to countries all over the world. Every year, birds that begin their lives on the coastal plain migrate to all 50 states and across six continents, before heading back to the Arctic, where the cycle of life begins again."
With the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to be marked on December 6, the senators see that as a fitting date for President Obama to lend more protection for the landscape from energy development.
Of course, the president already has been put on notice by Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee not to designate any national monuments without consulting both the general public and Congress. And Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Washington, who hopes to take over the chairmanship of that committee, is on record as saying that he'll be looking at all forms of energy development in the new Congress.
Alaska's Democratic senator, Mark Begich, also opposes turning the refuge into a monument.
“This is another misguided attempt to lock up ANWR by Senator (Joe) Lieberman and others who truly don’t understand its potential to help bring national and economic security to our country,” Sen. Begich said in response to the letter to the president. “The vast majority of ANWR is already off limits to development, but Congress specifically set aside 1.5 million acres in the 1002 area for oil and gas exploration. It has enormous potential and should be part of a national energy plan for our country.
“We now know you can use directional drilling to extract oil and gas with virtually no surface disturbance," the senator added. "We should be discussing how to make that happen, and reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, rather than writing more letters that paint ANWR as this last bastion of wilderness. I would invite all of these senators to come to Alaska and see first-hand how we do exploration correctly on the North Slope, the millions of acres already protected in ANWR, and the relatively small area of ANWR that would ever be touched for development.”
Signing on to the letter along with Sen. Lieberman were Sens. John Kerry, Mark Udall, Tom Udall, Al Franken, Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, Maria Cantwell, Tom Harkin, Russell Feingold, Michael F. Bennet, Richard Lugar, Sheldon Whitehouse, Frank Lautenberg, Benjamin Cardin, Ron Wyden, Patty Murray, Jeff Merkley, Richard Durbin, Christopher Dodd, Jeanne Shaheen, Robert Menendez, Thomas Carper, Debbie Stabanow, and Jack Reed.
Traveler footnote: Whether any oil or natural gas ever produced from ANWR would help reduce the country's dependence on foreign imports depends on whom the companies would sell it to. It could just as easily be sold to Asian countries.