This weekend, President Barack Obama proposed that Congress designate 12.3 million acres of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as a wilderness area. The move not only protects a habitat that’s home to polar bears, gray wolves, muskoxen, and 200 other animal species, but it also locks up an estimated 10 billion barrels of oil. It won't be the last of Obama's nature protections this week: Soon, the administration will release a draft of a five-year leasing plan for public lands, which is expected to make more of the Arctic off-limits to drilling.
Republicans, naturally, are apoplectic. Some Alaskan lawmakers have called the wilderness protection an affront to the state's sovereignty. “It's clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory. The promises made to us at statehood, and since then, mean absolutely nothing to them,” Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chair Lisa Murkowski said in a statement. “I cannot understand why this administration is willing to negotiate with Iran, but not Alaska." Senator Dan Sullivan called it a “war on Alaska’s families.” Congressman Don Young said Obama's move is like "spitting in our faces and telling us it's raining."
The designation isn't official unless Congress acts, which it won't do with its Republican majority. Still, it's not meaningless. The Washington Post reported that until Congress or a new president says otherwise, the Department of the Interior could begin to consider ANWR under “the highest level of protection.” Obama’s move reignites a debate that dates back to the Reagan Administration, and it comes at exactly the same time Republicans plan to pick up an easy legislative win by approving the Keystone XL pipeline. This isn't a coincidence. Obama clearly wants to move on from Keystone, and his protection order will help reframe the country's debate about drilling versus conservation. He’s waging new fights that leave Republicans with an ANWR battle on their hands.
As he suggested in his recent State of the Union, Obama is opting for an aggressive approach in dealing with Republicans in his final two years. Rather than let the GOP dictate their own terms in the energy debate, Obama is daring them to oppose his agenda. There's another reason that this is an interesting time to wage an ANWR battle: Gas prices are low, meaning that drilling is far lower on the list of priorities for most Americans than it otherwise would be. (Of course Obama wouldn't have an impact on gas prices, anyway.)