By Julia Edwards
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama will call on Congress to expand protection of Alaska's Arctic refuge where oil and gas drilling is prohibited to 12 million acres (5 million hectares), an area that includes 1.4 million oil-rich acres along the coast.
The proposal, unveiled by the Interior Department on Sunday, ran into instant criticism from Republicans and is likely to face an uphill battle in Congress, where Republicans now control both chambers.
The wilderness designation, the highest level of federal protection under which oil and gas drilling is banned, would be extended to a total of 19.8 million acres (8 million hectares) under the proposal, the Interior Department said.
The move was the latest salvo in the energy wars between Obama, a Democrat, and Republican lawmakers. Republicans kicked off the new Congress earlier this month with a bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline to help move Canadian oil to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Obama immediately said he would veto the measure.
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Republican chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, called the Obama administration's proposal a politically motivated attack on Alaska.
On Friday, she had introduced a bill that would have permitted oil production in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"It's clear this administration does not care about us, and sees us as nothing but a territory. The promises made to us at statehood, and since then, mean absolutely nothing to them. I cannot understand why this administration is willing to negotiate with Iran, but not Alaska," Murkowski said in a statement on Sunday.
"We will fight back with every resource at our disposal," she said.
The area in question, a 1.4 million-acre (566,000-hectare) strip wedged between the peaks of the Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean, is a vital site for polar bears and the migratory Porcupine caribou herd, which raises young there.
"Other oilfields are available. The Arctic Refuge is too special a place to drill," said David Hayes, senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the coastal plain holds 10.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil.
Alaska Governor Bill Walker said on Sunday he would consider "accelerating the options available" to increase oil exploration and production on state-owned lands in response to the move by the administration.
The Washington Post, which first reported the story, said the Interior Department would also place part of the Arctic Ocean off limits to drilling and is considering additional limits on oil and gas production in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska.
The announcement is one of a series that the Interior Department will make this week that will affect Alaska's oil and gas production, the Post said.
The energy wars are taking place against a backdrop of domestic oil and gas production that has surged in recent years. Across the United States, oil production has surged by more than 3 million barrels per day in the last four years and by more than 2 million in the last two years alone.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Frances Kerry)