Debate surrounding Alaska's ANWR escalates ahead of amendment vote

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WASHINGTON (KTUU) - In a floor speech delivered Thursday morning, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski asked members to oppose an amendment that she says would "preemptively strike" the goal of the Energy Committee to raise $1 billion over the next 10 years.

The amendment, offered by Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Edward Markey (D-MA) and Michael Bennet (R-CO), is aimed at preventing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), from being included in the larger budget tax bill.

According to Murkowski, this fundraising goal should be attainable thanks to ANWR, despite it being a hotly contested issue to Alaskans. While Murkowski called for her colleagues not to support the amendment, opponents to the development of the region are voicing their concerns Thursday, as well.

ANWR, a protected area of over 19 million acres in the northwest corner of the state, has been embroiled in a years-long debate as to whether it should be opened to oil and gas development, or remain untouched as part of a natural refuge. Following the $1 billion goal being established, many eyes in Alaska rested squarely on ANWR to help make up the funds.

According to Alaskan lawmakers, including Murkowski, the money from developing the region, as well as the jobs that would accompany it, could be a huge boon – not only to the Alaskan economy, but to the nation. In addition, lawmakers say it could provide support to the goal of energy independence, too.

"There's been a lot of discussion on the floor about ANWR already," said Murkowski. "As an Alaskan, and one that has been part of these debates for many years now... we know what we're talking about when we talk about Arctic development. We know and understand what ANWR is, where the wilderness area is, and where the 10-02 area is."

During her speech, Murkowski brought out a map displaying the relative size of Alaska to the rest of the nation. And within that, she displayed the overall size of ANWR and the target size of space to be allocated for energy development. That region, known as the 1002 Area, is land within the overall ANWR boarder, which Murkowski says was "specifically set aside," when ANWR was established as a region to be considered for its resources.

"We're not asking to develop all of the 10-02," Murkowski said. "We're asking to develop just 2,000 federal acres within it. Effectively one 10,000th of the refuge area."

Opponents of the effort to develop land within ANWR for drilling are likewise being very vocal about the issue. In a statement issued Thursday, hundreds of businesses and organizations in the country sent a letter to congress, specifically regarding the amendment.

In a statement made by Adam Kolton, the executive director of Alaska Wilderness League, he said, "For decades, Congress has voted to protect the Arctic Refuge – because of the unwavering support of the American people. Today, 304 businesses and organizations sent a letter to ask Congress to stand with the vast majority of Americans who want the Refuge protected for future generations, not squandered for a short-term speculative fix of oil that would be gone in a generation, if it exists at all."

Native groups, who actually reside in and around the area, have also been vocal about the way in which they say their views are overlooked by politicians, some of whom do not have any reference point for what ANWR actually is.

"As ANWR debates occur, the views of the Iñupiat, who call the area home, are often times left out," said Matthew Rexford, president of Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation. "The wishes of the people who live in and around the refuges' coastal plain are frequently drowned out by people who live hundreds and even thousands of miles away – many of whom have never bothered to set foot anywhere near the Arctic."

Whether the amendment will proceed or not remains to be seen.

"Let's not pull the plug before we get going," Murkowski said. "Why would you leave energy out of this debate? Why would we limit our opportunity to create new wealth in this country?" she asked.

Responding in favor of the amendment to prevent drilling, Kolton said, "There is no good reason to sacrifice ‘Americas Serengeti’ and put at risk the polar bears, caribou and other iconic wildlife of this last great wilderness."

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