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Image: Caribou on Arctic refuge coastal plain
Fish and Wildlife Service
Caribou graze along the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which is back in the spotlight over a federal review that could close it to drilling for good.
By Miguel Llanos Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 10/1/2010 6:08:45 AM ET 2010-10-01T10:08:45

Politicians, environmentalists and oil executives: Man your battle stations! The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the pre-eminent environment-energy issue during the George W. Bush administration, is back.

This time it's not environmentalists trying to stop oil wells from popping up along and off the coastal plain of the refuge — it's pro-drilling folks vowing to stop an attempt to declare that area off limits by making it federal wilderness.

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A few key things have changed this time around: There's that recession and the clamor for jobs that new drilling would provide over the years; and, of course, there's that oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Drilling supporters — especially Alaska's lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike — are upset over a federal review that could end up closing the door to drilling there, ever.

The decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service to review three refuge areas for possible designation as wilderness didn't make it on the national radar when it was announced Monday.

But in Alaska, the reaction was swift and clear, since the refuge is thought to have 11 billion barrels of recoverable oil.

"It's a proposed waste of the oil and natural gas resources that belong to all Americans," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the senior Republican on the Senate Environment Committee, said in a press release. "This is a blatant political move by the administration and clearly violates the promise of no more administrative wilderness designations in Alaska."

Alaska's other senator, Democrat Mark Begich, echoed that view and launched his own attack on Wednesday after three peers — Sens. Joe Lieberman, Conn.; Mark Udall, Colo.; and Tom Udall, N.M. — began lobbying senators to back wilderness designation.

"Permanently prohibiting (ANWR) development would be irresponsible as this nation continues to import increasingly more of its energy from foreign sources," Begich said in a letter to fellow Senate Democrats.

Opponents bring up BP spill
Environmentalists, for their part, are ecstatic about the wilderness reviews.

"For decades the oil industry has sought to destroy this unique wilderness refuge, despite the fact that it represents the only place on Alaska's North Slope that is legislatively closed to development," said Cindy Shogan, head of the Alaska Wilderness League.

"The tragic BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico has shown that oil drilling is a dangerous, dirty business," she added. "The Arctic Refuge is one of the last true wilderness areas left in the United States — some places are just too special to sacrifice to oil and gas development."

Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Bruce Woods said his understanding of the "no more" promise cited by Murkowski was that no new conservation areas would be designated without approval of Congress.

Already, some 8 million of the refuge's 19 million acres are wilderness. But the remaining 11 million include most of the coastal area where oil sits below the surface and offshore.

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The Fish and Wildlife Service said it expects to complete the reviews by February, then seek public input in March. By May 2012 it expects to forward its recommendation to the Interior secretary and President Barack Obama and then, if approved at that level, to Congress, which has the final say.

Between now and then, however, a lot could change — especially who controls Congress. If Republicans gain control of the House or Senate this November, any effort to create new wilderness areas could be a losing proposition.

The issue, as it has in the past, does make for great fodder for some politicians — especially Murkowski, who lost to Tea Party favorite Joe Miller in the Republican primary and will now run as an independent in the November Senate race.

"I'm sure she's happy to see this argument go forward," said Frank Maisano, a Washington, D.C.-based energy analyst at Bracewell & Giuliani, an international law and lobbying firm whose clients include energy companies.

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ANWR "will draw attention to her ability" to deal with issues important to Alaska, while Miller's position of demanding that federal lands revert to state control is unrealistic, Maisano said. (Miller's campaign headquarters did not immediately return a call for comment on his perspective on the wilderness reviews.)

Still, Maisano sees it as less of a political issue with legs than a "political whipping horse" for some.

"Will it be used by certain groups to gin up activists? Absolutely," he said.

'Use ANWR as a cash machine'
Back in Alaska, it's hard to find even a Democratic lawmaker against tapping the energy resources inside the Arctic refuge.

Scott McAdams — a Democrat taking on Miller and Murkowski — supports drilling in ANWR and this week launched a series of TV ads touting his vision for getting more support: use some of the drilling revenue to create a renewable energy fund.

"We could create a laboratory for renewable energy for the planet," he said earlier about his idea. "We could use ANWR as a cash machine to transform the way that we do renewable energy at the local level.

"The things that we would learn, the mistakes that we would make, the innovations that we would come up with, through that effort, could be a blueprint for the world."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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