The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (“ANWR”) is in the news again. This refuge, set in the midst of some of the nation’s richest petroleum deposits, has been a source of contention and controversy since the passage of the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act (“ANILCA”) in 1980. That Act greatly expanded the size of ANWR, which now extends over 30,136 square miles (about the size of South Carolina) on the eastern edge of Alaska’s Arctic Ocean coastline. ANWR is immediately adjacent to the giant Prudhoe Bay oilfield.

The controversy dates back to the passage of ANILCA, and the fact that ANWR has been estimated by the Department of the Interior to hold billions of barrels of recoverable oil. It almost certainly contains the largest reservoirs of conventionally recoverable onshore petroleum in the United States. Although ANILCA prohibited production of oil from ANWR without Congressional authorization, it did provide for exploration activity on the refuge to assess its petroleum resources. There was some exploration in the early 1980s, but essentially none since then.

On July 9 of this year, the State of Alaska filed an application for an exploration permit with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has administrative responsibility for ANWR. The application requested permission to conduct 3-D seismic testing, a technology not available in the 1980s when the last oil exploration occurred. The state maintains that its application complied with all applicable regulations of the USFWS. It is worth noting that oil and gas exploration and even production occurs on a substantial number of other federal wildlife refuges.

On July 23, the Fish and Wildlife Service turned down the application, on the grounds that ANILCA implicitly prohibits exploration on ANWR after 1985. Although there is no such explicit language in the Act, the Service relied on an Interior Department legal opinion dating from January 18, 2001 (two days before the end of the Clinton administration) for this interpretation. Alaska Governor Parnell criticized this response as being based on an inaccurate reading of ANILCA, and preventing modern, more accurate, and non-invasive methods of testing from being used.

This interchange is illustrative of the friction between the current federal and Alaska state administrations, which have clashed on a number of occasions regarding public lands issues. About 70% of Alaska is owned by the federal government.