Obama’s Arctic Wilderness Move Would Protect Endangered Polar Bears and Wolves

The GOP lashes out against a plan to make an Alaskan refuge off-limits to oil and gas drilling.
Jan 26, 2015·
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

President Obama's proposal to ban oil and gas drilling in a vast area of the Arctic would protect a plethora of endangered wildlife threatened by climate change.

Speaking en route to India on Sunday from Air Force One, President Obama exhorted federal lawmakers to give federal "wilderness" status to another 12.3 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

"Alaska's National Wildlife Refuge is an incredible place—pristine, undisturbed," he said. "It supports caribou and polar bears, all manner of marine life, countless species of birds and fish, and for centuries it supported many Alaska Native communities."

Because 7 million acres of the refuge are already classified as wilderness, this move would put nearly the entire refuge of 19.8 million acres under the federal government's highest level of protection for federal lands.

(Image: U.S. Department of Interior)

If he succeeds, Obama will carve out a powerful environmental legacy, as ANWR is already home to many animals threatened by climate change. Four already have federal endangered species protections: polar bears, ringed and bearded seals, and Arctic gray wolves. Musk oxen were restored to the area about 45 years ago, after being wiped out in the 19th century, but their numbers are low and may not be stable.

Giving wilderness status to the bulk of ANWR's lands would also help fight climate change by prohibiting oil and gas drilling on the refuge's coast while making the core lands of the refuge off-limits to pipelines. A scientific study recently found that to keep rising global temperatures at or under 2 degrees Celsius, all fossil fuels in the Arctic must be left underground.

Opening the refuge as well as the Arctic Ocean to energy extraction is a cherished goal of GOP lawmakers, including Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who has taken powerful energy and environment leadership posts in the Republican-controlled Congress. Murkowski and other Republicans vowed to fight the wilderness proposal.

"What's coming is a stunning attack on our sovereignty," Murkowski said in a statement, "and our ability to develop a strong economy that allows us, our children, and our grandchildren to thrive."

According to The Washington Post, which broke this story on Sunday, it's just the beginning of a series of Obama administration proposals to protect the Arctic. The Department of Interior "will also put part of the Arctic Ocean off-limits to drilling as part of a five-year leasing plan it will issue this week and is considering whether to impose additional limits on oil and gas production in parts of the National Petroleum Reserve—Alaska," the Post reported.