Clinton forgoes ANWR monument status; developers 'optimistic'

Photo Courtesy of Ryan Air
oilgas.jpg JUNEAU -- State political leaders are breathing a collective sigh of relief after prevailing over conservationists pushing for more protection for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The White House announced Jan. 10 that President Clinton will not designate ANWR a national monument before he leaves office.

Gov. Tony Knowles said it’s one less barrier in the way of approval by Congress to drill for oil in ANWR’s coastal plain, a 1.5-million-acre slice of tundra just east of Prudhoe Bay.

"Had he made it a monument, we would have taken it to court -- we would have beat him to the courthouse steps with that issue. But then there would not have been any action until that had been resolved, and we all know court actions can take months, if not years, to be resolved," said Knowles, a Democrat.

The governor had argued that monument designation by executive order would be illegal because federal law requires congressional approval to withdraw more than 5,000 acres of additional land in Alaska from the public domain.

Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, chairman of the state Senate Resources Committee, called it good news for Alaska and the Lower 48.

"This clearly opens the road for our congressional delegation to put in legislation to authorize drilling for oil on the North Slope," said Torgerson.

The 19-million-acre ANWR was made a refuge in 1980 under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, with the provision the coastal plain could be drilled for oil if approved by Congress. Alaska’s congressional delegation in the past has tried unsuccessfully to pass bills authorizing oil development there, believed to be the best single prospect for discovering large quantities of petroleum in North America.

Clinton vetoed a budget bill in 1995, in part because it would have opened the refuge to oil drilling, and the president still opposes efforts to drill in ANWR, said Jake Siewert, a White House spokesman.

"But we believe ... ANWR has something that some of the other areas we looked at does not have, which is legislative protected status, which is actually higher than that conferred by the monuments," Siewert said.

Even if Clinton had made the refuge a monument, Congress still could have allowed oil drilling there. However, environmental groups believed it a step toward greater protection for the coastal plain, home to migrating birds, caribou and other wildlife.

Now the focus returns to Congress. Environmentalists and supporters of oil drilling in ANWR both believe they have the votes in Congress and the support of the public to achieve their opposite goals.

"We’re definitely optimistic," said Cam Toohey of Arctic Power, an Anchorage-based pro-development group. "This is the best scenario we’ve had in eight years, and we’re looking forward to ... when the administration changes hands."

"I think in the 107th Congress, they’ll find it even more difficult to secure a bill for opening the coastal plain," said Allen Smith, Alaska regional director of The Wilderness Society. "But it will be a fight, there is no question about that."

01/20/2001 - 8:00pm