ANWR Proposal Shows That Obama’s Power to Set the Agenda Is Alive and Well

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Here’s the latest salvo in President Obama’s flurry of executive activity following the 2014 election:

President Obama proposed designating 1.4 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as protected wilderness, drawing cheers from environmentalists but setting off a bitter new battle Sunday with the Republican-controlled Congress over oil and gas drilling in pristine areas of northern Alaska.

The plan would permanently bar drilling and other forms of development in the 19.8-million-acre refuge’s coastal plain, a narrow strip between the Brooks Range mountains and the Arctic Ocean where caribou give birth. The area, estimated to hold 10.3 billion barrels of oil, is home to more than 200 species, including polar bears, wolverines, musk oxen and thousands of migratory birds.

Now, technically this is meaningless. ANWR has been a battleground for years, as much symbolic as anything else. The amount of oil it could produce isn’t really huge, but then again, the environmental damage that a pipeline would produce probably isn’t that huge either.1 In any case, the Interior Department already bans drilling in ANWR, and there’s no way that a Republican Congress is going to pass a bill to make a drilling ban permanent. So what’s the point of Obama’s proposal?

It’s simple: once again he’s using the agenda-setting power of the presidency. Basically, he’s making ANWR something that everyone now has to take a stand on. Talking heads will fulminate on one side or the other, and Republicans will respond by introducing legislation to open up ANWR to drilling. This isn’t something they were planning to spend time on, but now they probably will. Their base will demand it, as will the Republican caucus in the House and Senate. Nothing will come of it, of course, but it will eat up time that might otherwise have been spent on something else.

And that’s why Obama is doing this. It also lays down a marker and lets everyone know that Democrats are the party of natural beauty while Republicans are the party of Big Oil. It can’t hurt to make that clear. Still, that’s not the main goal here. The main goal is to toss some sand in the gears of Republican plans for the 115th Congress. Obama is proving once again that even with the opposition in control of Congress, he still has the power to decide what people are going to talk about.

1Please address all hate mail regarding this assertion to my editors. Thanks.

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This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

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