FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Supporters of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge say the fact that almost no new oil and gas leases have been issued on the nation's wildlife refuges in 35 years offers little justification for blocking efforts in Alaska.
Supporters of drilling in ANWR were reacting to a new government report by the General Accounting Office that found almost no oil leases have been issued in refuges since 1966, when Congress formalized the national wildlife refuge system.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who opposes drilling in ANWR, requested the GAO analysis. He said the report shows that little oil drilling is done on refuges and most existing work was ''grandfathered'' in prior to 1966.
Markey said the GAO report deflates arguments by drilling proponents who point to drilling on other refuges as evidence that oil development and wildlife can be compatible.
Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, said Wednesday that the information doesn't change the facts underlying his support for ANWR drilling.
''The reality is that refuges have been traditionally open to oil and gas and other kinds of exploration,'' he said. ''They take salt out of some of them. They take minerals out of others. The justification for that analogy I just don't think fits.''
Roger Herrera, a former BP petroleum geologist working here for the pro-drilling group Arctic Power, also disputed Markey's reading of the report.
''The facts very clearly say that oil and gas development in the wildlife refuges is something that the government accepts,'' he said.
Markey argued that the report shows such work largely has been terminated. The GAO found that federally owned oil and gas is actually produced on only eight refuges. On the other 37 producing refuges, the petroleum comes from privately owned land or mineral rights within the refuge boundaries.
Herrera acknowledged that the government might have wanted to shut down those wells but was constrained by finances. The government would likely have to pay something if it denied owners the right to develop.
However, the fact that the government hasn't exercised its power is merely more evidence that oil work on refuges has not created a crisis, he said.
Markey also said the GAO report shows that opening ANWR to oil drilling would set an unfortunate new precedent.
Given that no leases have been approved since 1966, it's evident that the government considers oil work incompatible with wildlife, he said.
''If Congress allows drilling in ANWR, it will amount to a de facto repeal of the compatibility clause in the Refuge Act,'' Markey said.
Herrera said no such precedent is at stake. Congress set up separate rules for ANWR's coastal plain in Section 1002 of 1980's Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
''Clearly 1002 was set aside for the study of its oil and gas potential,'' he said. ''That recommendation has been made and Congress has been told it should be opened to careful oil and gas development.''
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