A push to re­new refuge drilling

TEST­ING WOULD BE FIRST STEP IN ALASKA Ad­min­is­tra­tion seeks to edit a 1980s reg­u­la­tion


The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is qui­etly mov­ing to al­low en­ergy ex­plo­ration in the Arc­tic Na­tional Wildlife Refuge for the first time in more than 30 years, ac­cord­ing to doc­u­ments ob­tained by The Wash­ing­ton Post, with a draft rule that would lay the ground­work for drilling.

Congress has sole au­thor­ity to de­ter­mine whether oil and gas drilling can take place within the refuge’s 19.6 mil­lion acres. But seis­mic stud­ies rep­re­sent a nec­es­sary first step, and In­te­rior Depart­ment of­fi­cials are mod­i­fy­ing a 1980s reg­u­la­tion to per­mit them.

The ef­fort rep­re­sents a twist in a po­lit­i­cal fight that has raged for decades. The re­mote and vast habi­tat, which serves as the main calv­ing ground for one of North Amer­ica’s last large cari­bou herds and a stop for mi­grat­ing birds from six con­ti­nents, has served as a ral­ly­ing cry for en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and some of Alaska’s na­tive tribes. But state politi­cians and many Repub­li­cans in Wash­ing­ton have pressed to ex­tract the bil­lions of bar­rels of oil ly­ing be­neath the refuge’s coastal plain.

Democrats have man­aged to block them through votes in the Se­nate and, in one in­stance in 1995, by a pres­i­den­tial veto.

In an Aug. 11 memo, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice act­ing di­rec­tor James W. Kurth in­structed the agency’s Alaska re­gional di­rec­tor to up­date a rule that al­lowed ex­ploratory drilling be­tween Oct. 1, 1984, and May 31, 1986, by strik­ing those cal­en­dar con­straints.

Do­ing so would elim­i­nate an ob­sta­cle that was the sub­ject of a court bat­tle as re­cently as two years ago.

“When fi­nal­ized, the new regu-

la­tion will al­low for ap­pli­cants to [sub­mit] re­quests for ap­proval of new ex­plo­ration plans,” Kurth wrote in the memo.

If the rule is fi­nal­ized af­ter a pub­lic com­ment pe­riod, com­pa­nies would have to bid on con­duct­ing the seis­mic stud­ies. The U.S. Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey es­ti­mated in a June 27 memo, ob­tained by Trustees for Alaska through a fed­eral records re­quest, that this work would cost about $3.6 mil­lion.

With oil prices av­er­ag­ing around $50 per bar­rel, po­ten­tially too low to jus­tify a sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ment in drilling in the refuge, it is un­clear how much in­ter­est com­pa­nies would have. Some might con­sider pro­ceed­ing with those stud­ies to get a bet­ter sense of the area’s po­ten­tial.

The be­hind-the-scenes push to open up the refuge — of­ten re­ferred to by its acro­nym, ANWR — comes as long­time drilling pro­po­nents oc­cupy key po­si­tions at the In­te­rior Depart­ment.

Its No. 2 of­fi­cial, David Bern­hardt, rep­re­sented Alaska in its un­suc­cess­ful 2014 suit to force then-In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Sally Jewell to al­low ex­ploratory drilling there. Joseph Balash, Pres­i­dent Trump’s nom­i­nee to serve as In­te­rior as­sis­tant sec­re­tary for land and min­er­als man­age­ment, asked fed­eral of­fi­cials to turn a por­tion of the refuge over to the state when he served as Alaska’s nat­u­ral re­sources com­mis­sioner. The state’s plan was to of­fer the land for leas­ing.

Dur­ing a stop in An­chor­age on May 31, In­te­rior Sec­re­tary Ryan Zinke said he hoped to jump-start en­ergy ex­plo­ration on Alaska’s North Slope in part by up­dat­ing re­source assess­ments of the refuge.

“I’m a ge­ol­o­gist. Sci­ence is a won­der­ful thing. It helps us un­der­stand what is go­ing on deep be­low the sur­face of the Earth,” Zinke said at the time. “We need to use sci­ence to up­date our un­der­stand­ing of the [coastal plain] of the Arc­tic Na­tional Wildlife Refuge as Congress con­sid­ers im­por­tant leg­is­la­tion to re­spon­si­bly de­velop there one day.”

The Fish and Wildlife memo notes that the In­te­rior Depart­ment asked it “to up­date the reg­u­la­tions con­cern­ing the ge­o­log­i­cal and geo­phys­i­cal ex­plo­ration” of that coastal area but does not iden­tify who is­sued the di­rec­tive.

An In­te­rior of­fi­cial said in an email Friday that the depart­ment is “re­quired by law — the Alaska Na­tional In­ter­est Lands Con­ser­va­tion Act — to al­low for seis­mic sur­veys in wildlife refuges across Alaska.”

“Hun­dreds of seis­mic sur­veys have been con­ducted on Alaska’s north slope — many of them on ANWR’s bor­ders,” the of­fi­cial added.

Both the Clin­ton and Obama ad­min­is­tra­tions con­cluded that the depart­ment was legally barred from per­mit­ting seis­mic stud­ies in the refuge. And en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists have con­sis­tently op­posed such ac­tiv­ity, which sends shock waves un­der­ground. They say it would dis­turb den­ning po­lar bears, which are listed as threat­ened un­der the En­dan­gered Species Act, as well as musk oxen and other Arc­tic an­i­mals.

An in­creas­ing num­ber of po­lar bears are now den­ning on­shore dur­ing the win­ter — when seis­mic stud­ies would take place — due to di­min­ish­ing sea ice, and a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the coastal plain is des­ig­nated as crit­i­cal habi­tat for the bears. The Aug. 11 memo di­rects the Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice’s re­gional di­rec­tor to con­duct an en­vi­ron­men­tal as­sess­ment as part of the pro­posed rule change be­cause the En­dan­gered Species Act re­quires fed­eral agen­cies to show that their ac­tions will not jeop­ar­dize or ad­versely mod­ify crit­i­cal habi­tat of a listed species.

“The ad­min­is­tra­tion is very stealth­ily try­ing to move for­ward with drilling on the Arc­tic’s coastal plain,” said De­fend­ers of Wildlife Pres­i­dent Jamie Rap­pa­port Clark, who led the Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice un­der Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton. “This is a com­plete about-face from decades of prac­tice.”

En­vi­ron­men­tal groups would be likely to chal­lenge any de­ci­sion to con­duct seis­mic work in the refuge in fed­eral court.

Alaska of­fi­cials have been work­ing for sev­eral years to restart seis­mic stud­ies on the coastal plain. They say the ini­tial ones, con­ducted in the win­ters of 1984 and 1985, were done with out­dated tech­nol­ogy and do not re­flect the area’s true po­ten­tial. The Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey, which re­an­a­lyzed that data nearly 15 years later, es­ti­mated that 7.7 bil­lion bar­rels of “tech­ni­cally re­cov­er­able oil” lie un­der the coastal plain.

The June 27 memo, sent to Zinke’s en­ergy pol­icy coun­selor Vin­cent De­Vito, said the depart­ment could ei­ther as­sume the ex­ist­ing seis­mic data is ac­cept­able, re­ex­am­ine that data with “state-of-the-art” tech­nol­ogy or con­duct new stud­ies with modern, 3-D tech­nol­ogy.

In an in­ter­view Thurs­day, Alaska Nat­u­ral Re­sources Com­mis­sioner Andy Mack said that re­cent oil dis­cov­er­ies near the refuge’s western edge sug­gest there may be more oil there than fed­eral of­fi­cials iden­ti­fied three decades ago.

“Alaska’s al­ways had an abid­ing in­ter­est in re­source devel­op­ment, par­tic­u­larly in oil,” Mack said. “We’re not dis­count­ing the ex­ist­ing data, but it’s old, and it’s rel­a­tively lim­ited.”

The ques­tion of whether In­te­rior can restart the seis­mic work is a sub­ject of le­gal dis­pute. The 1980s stud­ies, which took place along 1,400 miles of sur­vey lines and were fi­nanced by pri­vate oil firms, were aimed at gath­er­ing in­for­ma­tion for a re­port the in­te­rior sec­re­tary sub­mit­ted to Congress in 1987.

In 2001, In­te­rior so­lic­i­tor John Leshy is­sued a for­mal opinion con­clud­ing that the 1983 rule was “a time-lim­ited au­tho­riza­tion for ex­ploratory ac­tiv­i­ties in the coastal plain.”

Twelve years later, Alaska sought per­mis­sion from the Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice to launch a new ex­plo­ration pro­gram; Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials re­jected the re­quest, and the state sued.

On July 21, 2015, U.S. Dis­trict Judge Sharon L. Glea­son ruled against the state. “Whether the statute au­tho­rizes or re­quires the Sec­re­tary to ap­prove ad­di­tional ex­plo­ration af­ter the sub­mis­sion of the 1987 re­port is am­bigu­ous,” she wrote, but Jewell’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion that she no longer had au­thor­ity to al­low it “is based on a per­mis­si­ble and rea­son­able con­struc­tion of the statute.”

Mack said he was not sure whether com­pa­nies would want to drill in the refuge, but they now are more in­ter­ested in the po­ten­tial on land than off­shore.

Cono­coPhillips, for one, is “ac­tively ex­plor­ing and fo­cused on new devel­op­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties” within the neigh­bor­ing Na­tional Pe­tro­leum Re­serve-Alaska, ac­cord­ing to spokesman Daren Beaudo. “If ANWR was opened, we’d con­sider it within our portfolio of op­por­tu­ni­ties . . . and it would have to com­pete with other re­gions for our ex­plo­ration dol­lars,” he said.

Yet Pavel Molchanov, an en­ergy an­a­lyst at Ray­mond James & As­so­ci­ates, pre­dicted “very lit­tle in­ter­est” in drilling in the refuge for the fore­see­able fu­ture.

“The num­ber of com­pa­nies that would be open to a mean­ing­ful bet on ANWR we could re­al­is­ti­cally count on one hand, and that would be gen­er­ous,” Molchanov said.


Cari­bou traipse across the snow in June at Alaska’s Arc­tic Na­tional Wildlife Refuge.

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