Editorial: Don’t let Alaska be the next Keystone

The Detroit News

Having effectively stalled the KeystoneXL pipeline, President Barack Obama has found a new target: Alaska’s oil and gas industry. New proposals from the Interior Department would wall off more than 12 million acres in the state’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), as well as restrict drilling in the Arctic Ocean and the National Petroleum Reserve.

By using executive order to declare the rich oil fields as protected wilderness areas, the president is stripping the potential for oil exploration in the resource-abundant Alaskan plains and mountains.

The decisions threaten the livelihood of many Alaskans and the state’s overall economy, which is heavily dependent on oil and gas revenue. The executive decrees that have become all too common from the president fly directly in the face of a new Congress that supports responsible, domestic energy development.

The oil and gas industry is vital to Alaska’s economy. One-third of the state’s jobs, about 127,000 workers, depend on oil production, according to the Resource Development Council for Alaska.

The industry also accounts for 93 percent of the state’s general fund revenues, which were almost $9 billion in 2012. That money pays for the state’s services, including education, infrastructure, transportation, public health and safety.

The Arctic Outer Continental Shelf that surrounds Alaska contains an estimated 27 billion barrels of oil, and ANWR is thought to have at least 10 billion more. Producing oil from these lands could support Alaska and domestic energy production for decades to come.

The state’s economy is already threatened by a decreased amount of oil traveling on the Trans-Alaska pipeline due to declining production in already developed oil fields. If ANWR and other areas are permanently cut off, oil flow on that pipeline will continue to decrease, risking a shutdown of the vital conduit. And if it closes, the pipeline will have to be dismantled under federal law.

Alaska’s Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski has vowed to fight the administration’s impositions, and rightly so.

Designating ANWR as wilderness contradicts a 1980 law, which protects vast tracts of land in the state in return for an agreement that no more land be placed off-limits without congressional approval. The Interior Department has ignored that law.

Obama called the wilderness land and its ecosystems “fragile” in a video message announcing the changes. The president ignores new technology that allows oil and gas to be extracted from vast expanses of land from a single well-head, limiting potential damage. What’s truly fragile is a still-lagging U.S. economy that has seen a bright spot in oil and gas production.

Cutting off Alaskans from their main source of income and the state’s primary industry is unfair to those who have relied on it for more than 40 years, and threatens energy supplies for all Americans.

The administration should follow the law and take these measures to Congress instead of unilaterally threatening the economy of an entire state.