WASHINGTON — If there were any doubts about President Barack Obama's opinion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the White House dispelled them Monday, on the 50th anniversary of one of the country's most powerful symbols of wilderness.
"As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, we remember that this breathtaking terrain holds great significance to our nation," the president wrote in a proclamation. "Stretching from the plains of the Arctic Sea to the soaring mountains of the Brooks Range and lush boreal forests of the Alaskan lowlands, the rugged splendor of the Arctic Refuge is among the most profoundly beautiful places in America."
Pro-development forces and environmentalists have been divided for decades about the future of the refuge's northern-most swath -- the coastal plain. The anniversary of its founding, along with the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, has reignited the debate.
And so has the attention from the nation's highest profile Alaskan, former Gov. Sarah Palin, who mentioned the refuge in urging fans last week to watch Sunday's installment of her reality show.
"You'll also see us hunting at the edge of ANWR, where you can see the uninhabited lands that warehouse billions of barrels of American energy supplies underground just waiting for the political will to allow responsible resource development," Palin wrote last week on her Facebook page.
Yet even with the attention, little has changed about the politics of opening the coastal plain to drilling.
A Republican-controlled House will be more likely to approve legislation allowing drilling in ANWR's coastal plain. But even if legislation also passed in the Senate, the president most likely would veto it, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said Monday.
"I'll introduce my bill, as usual," Young said. "But the reality is, it's not going to get out of the Senate, and the reality is, Obama's not going to sign it. I'm realistic. I've done this 11 times."
But he said he'll do it again, and with the support of Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, the top candidate to run the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Upton on Monday stepped into the debate with a letter to the White House. Upton said he agreed the refuge is "truly one of America's greatest wild places." But he argued that changes in technology, including directional drilling, have made it possible to operate safely and responsibly in the refuge.
"I urge you to put our nation's needs ahead of politics, and implore you not to make it impossible to ever explore for natural resources in ANWR," he said.
Both of the Alaska's senators support opening ANWR's coastal plain to oil development, but there aren't enough votes in the Senate for it to pass. Democrat Mark Begich and Republican Lisa Murkowski criticized a letter sent last month to the president by 25 Democrat senators calling for Obama to use his executive authority to designate the refuge a national monument.
"I would invite all of these senators to come to Alaska and see first-hand how we do exploration correctly on the North Slope, the millions of acres already protected in ANWR, and the relatively small area of ANWR that would ever be touched for development," Begich said.
The refuge in total is about the size of South Carolina. Its southern half is designated as a refuge; north of that is an 8 million-acre mountainous section that's classified as wilderness. And farther north of that lies the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain, an area slightly bigger than the Municipality of Anchorage.
It's that coastal plain, set aside by Congress in 1980 for possible exploration, that's at the heart of the debate over drilling.
The coastal plain can't be opened to development without congressional approval, and that's been hard to come by. Although the House has passed such legislation 11 times, Young said, the Senate has managed to do so only once, in 1995, and it was vetoed by then-President Bill Clinton.
The state's leadership and its congressional delegation argue the coastal plain holds billions of barrels of oil, making it one of the nation's best prospects for new onshore oil discoveries. Its development, they argue, could provide additional energy security for the nation as well as drive Alaska's economy for years to come.
But environmentalists note that the coastal plain -- a calving ground for a massive caribou herd -- and the rest of ANWR are unlike any other part of the American landscape, and they argue they should be a wilderness, unspoiled by man.
Their call for Obama to designate it as a national monument, though, is opposed by both the state's leadership and the congressional delegation.
Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell, a Republican, last week sent Obama a letter arguing that unilateral executive action would be illegal, and only Congress has the authority to make decisions about the coastal plain.
"The state of Alaska strongly opposes any measures that would further encumber job potential and domestic energy production on the coastal plain of ANWR, the most promising unexplored petroleum region in North America," Parnell wrote.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in the midst of a master plan for the refuge, which will consider whether to designate that plain as wilderness; if that were to happen, it would be nearly impossible to remove that designation and drill in the coastal plain.
Both Begich and Murkowski have objected to the planning process. Murkowski in September called it "a blatant political move by the administration." She also sent the Fish and Wildlife Service a formal letter of protest, calling for it to halt the wilderness review.