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Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR): A Primer for the 112th Congress

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In the ongoing energy debate in Congress, one issue has been whether to approve energy development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR or Refuge) in northeastern Alaska— and if so, under what conditions—or whether to continue to prohibit development to protect the area’s biological, recreational, and subsistence values. ANWR is rich in fauna, flora, and oil and na In the ongoing energy debate in Congress, one issue has been whether to approve energy development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR or Refuge) in northeastern Alaska— and if so, under what conditions—or whether to continue to prohibit development to protect the area’s biological, recreational, and subsistence values. ANWR is rich in fauna, flora, and oil and natural gas potential. Its development has been debated for more than 50 years, but sharp increases in energy prices from late 2000 to early 2001, in 2004-2008, and in 2011 from a variety of causes (e.g., terrorist attacks, oil spills, and energy infrastructure damage from hurricanes), have repeatedly intensified the debate. Few onshore U.S. areas stir as much oil industry interest as ANWR. At the same time, few areas are considered more worthy of protection in the eyes of conservation and some Native groups. Current law explicitly prohibits oil and natural gas leasing in the Refuge. This report provides a primer on this debate, including background information, and a short description of issues which have arisen repeatedly, as well as some that have been debated only recently. Procedurally, a key feature in this background is the difficulty in changing the status quo, either toward development or toward additional protection. When energy prices have been high, those Members who advocate increasing supplies as a method of lowering energy prices have renewed their focus on ANWR development. Changes in party control in the House in the 112th Congress have encouraged development advocates. Over the years, opponents of opening the Refuge have succeeded consistently in stopping such attempts. However, any change from the status quo appears just as difficult for proponents of wilderness designation who seek to provide additional statutory protection as it does for development advocates. Substantively, a number of issues have been raised. Development advocates assert: • any ANWR oil would reduce U.S. energy markets’ exposure to Middle East crises; lower oil prices; extend the economic life of the Trans Alaska Pipeline; • development would create jobs in Alaska and elsewhere in the United States; and • ANWR oil could be developed with minimal environmental harm, and some argue that development could be limited to a total of 2,000 acres. Wilderness advocates counter: • intrusion on this ecosystem cannot be justified on any terms; • economically recoverable oil found (if any) would provide little energy security and could be replaced by cost-effective alternatives; • ANWR production would have negligible effect on oil prices; • job claims are exaggerated; and • development would be widely scattered, with irreparable impacts. This primer provides background for analyzing the various claims through an examination of its history, and an analysis of its geological, biological, human, and economic resources.


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In the ongoing energy debate in Congress, one issue has been whether to approve energy development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR or Refuge) in northeastern Alaska— and if so, under what conditions—or whether to continue to prohibit development to protect the area’s biological, recreational, and subsistence values. ANWR is rich in fauna, flora, and oil and na In the ongoing energy debate in Congress, one issue has been whether to approve energy development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR or Refuge) in northeastern Alaska— and if so, under what conditions—or whether to continue to prohibit development to protect the area’s biological, recreational, and subsistence values. ANWR is rich in fauna, flora, and oil and natural gas potential. Its development has been debated for more than 50 years, but sharp increases in energy prices from late 2000 to early 2001, in 2004-2008, and in 2011 from a variety of causes (e.g., terrorist attacks, oil spills, and energy infrastructure damage from hurricanes), have repeatedly intensified the debate. Few onshore U.S. areas stir as much oil industry interest as ANWR. At the same time, few areas are considered more worthy of protection in the eyes of conservation and some Native groups. Current law explicitly prohibits oil and natural gas leasing in the Refuge. This report provides a primer on this debate, including background information, and a short description of issues which have arisen repeatedly, as well as some that have been debated only recently. Procedurally, a key feature in this background is the difficulty in changing the status quo, either toward development or toward additional protection. When energy prices have been high, those Members who advocate increasing supplies as a method of lowering energy prices have renewed their focus on ANWR development. Changes in party control in the House in the 112th Congress have encouraged development advocates. Over the years, opponents of opening the Refuge have succeeded consistently in stopping such attempts. However, any change from the status quo appears just as difficult for proponents of wilderness designation who seek to provide additional statutory protection as it does for development advocates. Substantively, a number of issues have been raised. Development advocates assert: • any ANWR oil would reduce U.S. energy markets’ exposure to Middle East crises; lower oil prices; extend the economic life of the Trans Alaska Pipeline; • development would create jobs in Alaska and elsewhere in the United States; and • ANWR oil could be developed with minimal environmental harm, and some argue that development could be limited to a total of 2,000 acres. Wilderness advocates counter: • intrusion on this ecosystem cannot be justified on any terms; • economically recoverable oil found (if any) would provide little energy security and could be replaced by cost-effective alternatives; • ANWR production would have negligible effect on oil prices; • job claims are exaggerated; and • development would be widely scattered, with irreparable impacts. This primer provides background for analyzing the various claims through an examination of its history, and an analysis of its geological, biological, human, and economic resources.

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