FAIRBANKS — Another chapter has begun in the decades-long battle over drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan introduced legislation Friday that would open a section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to limited oil and gas exploration, according to a news release from the U.S. Senate Energy Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. 

The proposed Alaska Oil and Gas Production Act would allow development of 2,000 surface acres in the refuge’s coastal plain. When the refuge was expanded and renamed under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act in 1980, 

1.5 million acres —  often referred to as section 1002 — was designated as a deferred oil and gas development sigh that requires congressional approval to be developed. Oil and gas exploration would occur within the 1002 area. 

“For nearly 40 years, Alaskans have proven that we can responsibly develop our natural resources while protecting the environment,” Murkowski said in the news release. “Alaskans overwhelmingly support responsible development in the non-wilderness portion of ANWR and there is no valid reason why we should not be allowed to proceed. Allowing development would create new jobs, reduce our deficits, and protect our national security and competitiveness for a generation.”

The patch of land the senators are hoping to develop is 60 miles from the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, and because of development, they estimate it could take as many as 10 years for oil from ANWR to enter the pipeline.

Gov. Bill Walker lauded Murkowski and Sullivan for their legislative efforts. 

“I applaud Sen. Murkowski and Sen. Sullivan for their bold move today,” Walker said in Friday’s news release. “The state will do everything it can to provide the infrastructure needed to responsibly access the 1002 section of ANWR. Alaska has developed the seismic technology needed to focus on the most resource-rich portion of the area, allowing us to limit the footprint of activity in the region. With an oil pipeline that is three-quarters empty and an over $3 billion budget deficit, drilling in the 1002 would fill TAPS and bring much needed revenue to our state coffers.”

However, concerns about climate change and wildlife have spurred some organizations to push back. The refuge is home to polar bears, caribou, moose, musk oxen and wolves. The refuge is also home to nearly 200 migratory birds. The Gwich’in people call its coastal plain a sacred site.

“Due to major changes on our climate and thawing twice as fast as anywhere else on this planet has changed Alaskans attitudes towards protection for Alaska,” said Bernadette Demientieff in a news release, who is the executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, a committee formed to protect ANWR. “Hunting our animals for food, clothing and tools is part of our identity as Natives and we cannot risk losing that. We must protect what is left and keep our land and animals healthy for future generations.”

The Alaska Wilderness League also issued a written statement: 

“We will fight any and all attempts to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The arctic refuge is owned by all Americans and is one of our nation’s most treasured places. For nearly 30 years, Americans have fought to keep the Arctic Refuge and its sensitive Coastal Plain protected.”

The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated 16 billion barrels of oil could be produced from the refuge’s coastal plain, making it the continent’s best prospect for onshore oil production.

“For decades, Alaskans of all political stripes have been pleading with the Federal government to let us responsibly develop our resources — including the small 1002 area of ANWR,” Sullivan said in the news release. “Time and again, our pleas have been denied. This is shameful. Development of this area would be a boost to our state and national economies, providing thousands of good-paying jobs and billions of dollars in federal and state revenue. Because energy can be used as a tool for power and diplomacy, developing Alaska’s abundant reserves would also strengthen our national security. I’ll do everything I can in this next Congress to work with my colleagues and the new administration to at long last allow our state to finally realize its full potential.”

U.S. Rep. Don Young said in a Facebook post he introduced similar legislation in the House of Representatives last week “that would open portions of ANWR Coastal Plain for responsible resource development.”

ANWR drilling facts

The refuge was created in 1960 under a Public Law Order that designated 8.9 million acres as the Arctic National Wildlife Range.

In 1980, the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act enlarged the refuge to 19 million acres, including the original area, and dubbed the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. 

Under Section 1002 of the Alaska National Wildlife Lands Conservation Act, 1.5 million acres of the refuge’s coastal plain was set aside for deferred oil and gas exploration. Oil and gas exploration in this 1.5 million section of land, commonly referred to as the “1002 Area”, requires approval from Congress. 

The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated the coastal plain of ANWR is the best prospect for onshore oil production. The USGS has estimated 10.4 billion barrels of oil and 8.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas exist beneath the surface. Another USGS estimate said there is a reasonable chance to economically produce 16 billion barrels of oil. 

Since ANWR’s creation, the late Sen. Ted Stevens fought to drill the refuge until he left office. The New York Times dubbed him the “chief proponent of drilling” in a 2003 article. 

Multiple attempts were made during George W. Bush’s presidency to include drilling provisions in congressional budget resolutions, but moderate Republicans helped Democrats narrowly defeat the drilling provisions. 

U.S. Rep. Don Young has said he has gotten the U.S. House to pass legislation to drill ANWR 12 times, but 11 of those times legislation fell in the Senate. The one time legislation was passed in the Senate, President Bill Clinton vetoed it. 

Contact staff writer Kevin Baird at 459-7575. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMcity.