Senator Lisa Murkowski, who chairs the powerful Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the Obama administration had “effectively declared war on Alaska” – prompting an Obama aid to publicly disagree with her.
“We don’t think the reaction that particularly Senator Murkowski had to this announcement was warranted,” White House counsellor John Podesta told reporters travelling with US President Barack Obama.
Murkowski, however, held her stance on the issue.
“This is where we live and this is where we work, so show us a little respect,” she said.
Decades-long efforts to open up new areas for oil and gas exploration are backed by both Democrats and Republicans, though there has been fierce debate over that time and this latest decision could put billions of barrels of oil beneath the wilderness out of reach of energy companies.
The US Geological Survey estimates that ANWR contains between 5-16 billion barrels of oil, though industry sources say companies would likely find even more once drilling begins.
"It's very fragile," Obama said of the ANWR after his request for wilderness status reversed a recommendation by the Reagan administration in 1987 to allow drilling in a small area of the ANWR.
"That's why I'm very proud that my Department of Interior has put forward a comprehensive plan to make sure that we're protecting the refuge and that we're designating new areas, including coastal plains, for preservation."
Murkowski and her Alaskan colleagues hope to launch another ANWR drilling push, but there are doubts as to whether they can win 60 votes in the Senate as it would take an act of Congress to change Obama’s decision.
Yet that could change soon with the Republicans set to retake the Senate.
Murkowski warned that the Interior Department planned to issue even more restrictions on the state’s oil and gas industry, omitting areas in the offshore Arctic waters from an upcoming five-year oil and gas development plan which Interior is yet to publicly reveal.
Following Obama’s decision, Alaska Governor Bill Walker said he would “consider accelerating the options available to increase oil exploration and production on state-owned lands”
The American Petroleum Institute’s Erik Milito said it was only a matter of time before Congress’ hand would be forced to allow exploration in the area.
"If you look at Department of Energy forecasts, we're going to need oil and natural gas to fuel this economy for decades to come," Milito told npr.org.
“So, we’ve got to plan well ahead so we have the ability to fuel this economy for future generations."
Oppenheimer & Co managing director Fadel Gheit said Obama’s decision did not change the outlook for developing the ANWR reserves significantly as technology would bring the hurdle down. He also said that the shale revolution reduced the urgency of tapping ANWR oil as well.