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mom and baby polar bears

A polar bear keeps close to her young along the Beaufort Sea coast in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Susanne Miller/USFWS/Flickr)

Alaska Senator Denounced for 'Deplorable' Attempt to Force Drilling in Arctic Wildlife Refuge

Environmentalists sharply rebuked Sen. Lisa Murkowski's (R-Alaska) proposal to force the sale of drilling rights contracts for public land in Alaska

Jessica Corbett

Environmentalists denounced as "deplorable," "immoral," and "toxic" a move by Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to force drilling for oil and natural gas on federally protected public lands in Alaska.

"This toxic legislation would turn vital wildlife habitat into an oil field. It's pure politics and bad science."
—Jamie Rappaport Clark, Defenders of Wildlife

After Senate Republicans—and one Democrat—last month thwarted efforts by a group of Democratic senators and conservationists to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) from the fossil fuel industry, Murkowski proposed legislation on Wednesday that would require the Interior Department to approve at least two sales for drilling rights leases within a decade. And because the measure is part of the budget resolution process, it could pass by a simple majority.

While Murkowski—with support from Alaska's governor and other members of Congress—touted her legislation as "a tremendous opportunity" that would "put Alaska and the entire nation on a path toward greater prosperity," local and national environmentalists warned of the consequences of her proposal to open up 1.5 million acres of ANWR's coastal plain to drilling.

"What this bill would do is turn America's last great wilderness into a lost wilderness," said Adam Kolton, executive director of Alaska Wilderness League. "It would allow roads, pipelines, gravel mines, and well pads to be erected across the entire birthing grounds of the Coastal Plain, where caribou calve and where polar bear mothers den."

"It's deplorable that a backdoor budget maneuver is being used to ram Arctic drilling through without a full, fair and open debate," Kolton continued. "It's immoral that this bill would risk the subsistence culture of the Gwich'in for a fool's gold of exaggerated money and jobs. And it's wrong to pretend to offer a tax cut with one hand and rob our children and grandchildren of their rightful heritage with the other."

"This toxic legislation would turn vital wildlife habitat into an oil field. It's pure politics and bad science," said Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife. "With this proposal, Senator Murkowski's long-standing wish to shove aside polar bears, caribou, wolves, and environmental protections, and give away the Arctic refuge to the fossil fuel industry is a frightening step closer to reality. Despite Senator Murkowski's spin, industrializing the biological heart of the Arctic Refuge will never be compatible with protecting its world class wildlife values."

Although the possibility of ANWR drilling has been hotly debated in Washington for decades, the current discussions have been spurred by a budget requirement that would force the Senate Energy and Natural Gas Committee—which Murkowski chairs—to generate $1 billion in revenue over the next 10 years.

"Drilling in this sensitive ecological area remains as terrible an idea today as it was 12 years ago, when Congress blocked a similar effort," the Seattle Times argued in a recent editorial. "Congress should resist. This $1 billion is minuscule compared to the $1.5 trillion Republicans would add to the federal deficit with their tax-cut plan."

Critics—including Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the Senate energy committee who helped lead the failed effort to protect ANWR last month—condemned the legislation on Twitter:

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