Environmental groups said they would fight any legislation that would allow oil companies to drill sideways from outside the boundaries of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge into its oil reserves, predicting it would be "dead in the water" under the Obama Administration.
Their response came within hours of U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski's announcement Thursday that she planned to introduce a bill that would allow for use of a developing technology called directional drilling under the surface of the coastal plain - a relatively small but controversial area of the refuge.
She called it a compromise effort to reconcile differences between those wishing to develop the oil reserves along Alaska's northern coast east of Prudhoe Bay with conservationists who have blocked drilling in ANWR for years, she told the Alaska Legislature in her annual address.
"The drilling would take place on state lands and in state waters," she told applauding lawmakers. But "there would be no surface occupancy of lands in the refuge proper," she said.
"The nation gets its oil. Those who are concerned about the loss of wilderness get to enjoy the refuge as it exists today," Murkowski, R-Alaska, said. "Impacts to subsistence are minimized, if not eliminated."
Environmentalists said they would oppose any activity on or near the coastal plain and they point to recent oil spills on the North Slope as reason to disallow new activity in sensitive areas.
Kristen Miller, government affairs director for the Alaska Wilderness League, called the proposed legislation: "Big Oil's latest scheme to get their hands on pristine, untouched land that millions of Americans have fought for years to protect."
"No matter how you dress it up, the goal is still to develop one of the few truly wild places we have left," she said.
Advocates of advanced directional drilling methods say it would allow for a much smaller footprint impacting wildlife.
But Anchorage attorney Peter Van Tuyn, who represents various environmental groups in Alaska, said an intensive exploration program would have to take place on the coastal plain before any production wells could be drilled.
"I haven't seen any technology that would allow them to do it and still meet what (Murkowski) said she wanted to do which is to leave the coastal plain totally alone," Van Tuyn said.
Robert Dillon, Murkowski's energy aide, said the disruption would be negligible.
He said the seismic exploration needed to explore the reserves would occur over one or two winters, depending on the length of the season. He said that means work could proceed without disrupting caribou, a primary concern of the Gwichin Indians who depend on the herd for food. It also would avoid the need to build roads since travel could take place using vehicles with big rubber tires to protect the land.
"In the summer there would be no trace that we were ever there and we wouldn't have to go back," Dillon said.
Murkowski said she realizes it's not a perfect solution, and current technology means directional drilling would only allow about a tenth of likely oil reserves, perhaps a greater percentage of natural gas, to be reached.
But she said drilling technology is advancing all the time, and more reserves will open for development.
President Obama has opposed to drilling in ANWR and Van Tuyn predicts that won't change.
"Any effort to drill the refuge in any sense is dead in the water with this administration, and should be," he said
The coastal strip of ANWR, as the refuge is commonly referred to, is believed to contain 10.5 billion barrels of oil. At peak production the refuge could supply 1 million barrels a day by 2025, according to the Interior Department.
Murkowski also again prodded Alaska lawmakers to get the state's vast abundance of natural gas delivered to Lower 48 markets.
"While ANWR remains a difficult problem for us in Washington, the new administration is strongly supportive of our efforts to build our natural gas pipeline. America wonders, with all of the enthusiasm we have to opening ANWR, why is it that Alaska can't get its act together to deliver its gas to the Lower 48 markets?" she said of a question she gets constantly in Washington, D.C.
She bluntly told legislators that America won't wait forever for Alaska's natural gas, and might turn to emerging sources, like shale gas production.
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