Trump ‘really didn’t care’ about ANWR. Then a friend called.

President Trump spoke at a Republican retreat. (Image:C-SPAN)

President Trump says he didn’t care about opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling – until he found out other presidents had tried to and failed.

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“I never appreciated ANWR so much,” Trump said, in a speech recounting his 2017 accomplishments at a Republican retreat in West Virginia. “A friend of mine called up who is in that world and in that business. He said, ‘Is it true that you’re thinking about ANWR?’ I said ‘Yeah, I think we’re going to get it but you know …’  He said, ‘Are you kidding? That’s the biggest thing by itself. Ronald Reagan and every president has wanted to get ANWR approved.’ And after that I said ‘Oh, make sure that is in the bill. It was amazing how that had an impact. That had a very big impact on me, Paul.”

He seemed to be addressing House Speaker Paul Ryan, who was nearby. Trump did not identify the friend he credits with turning him around on the importance of opening ANWR.

“I really didn’t care about it,” Trump said. “Then when I heard that everybody wanted it, for 40 years, everybody tried to get it approved, ‘Make sure you don’t lose ANWR.'”

Trump added that he believes it will be great for the people of Alaska. He also called it “one of the great potential fields anywhere in the world.”

Alaska Wilderness League Director Adam Kolton has fought for years to keep the refuge undeveloped. He said the president’s casual attitude toward a wild place millions of Americans want to protect is frustrating.

“Yeah, so maybe he’s aware this was a political win he can chalk up. But does he understand the issue, what’s a stake?” Kolton asked. “I think the cavalier nature of the comments suggest that he doesn’t.”

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan was in the room for Trump’s speech. As he tells it, the president has cared about ANWR since at least last March. That’s when Sullivan and Sen. Lisa Murkowski brought Alaska maps to the Oval Office and briefed Trump for nearly an hour on state issues.

“After that meeting,” Sullivan said, “Seeing him in different settings and stuff, a number of times, a number times, he would ask, ‘Hey Dan, how are we doing on ANWR? We going to get that done?'”

Sullivan spoke from a chartered bus as the congressional Republicans made their way back to the Capitol from West Virginia. He said he’s not sure why Trump told the story as he did.

“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask the president,” Sullivan said. “Could’ve been a playful remark, having a little bit of fun.”

Congress approved opening ANWR in its tax overhaul in December. The act calls for two lease sales on the coastal plain of the refuge in the next seven years. Alaska Wilderness League says Congress should repeal the legislation, and environmental lawsuits are almost certain.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage.

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