Geology gets political as federal scientists pursue new ANWR oil assessment

Pond on ANWR coastal plain. The Trump administration is asking federal geologists for a new assessment of the area’s oil potential. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

All eyes were on a Senate hearing in Washington D.C. yesterday, as Democrats and Republicans once again sparred over whether to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

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But one federal scientist whose work could sway the Arctic Refuge’s future wasn’t at the hearing — he was here in Alaska, giving a talk to an industry group.

David Houseknecht works for the U.S. Geological Survey, and he’s trying to figure out two key questions: How much oil is in the Arctic Refuge, and where is it? The answers could decide ANWR’s fate, no matter how the politics play out.

Houseknecht’s audience was packed with industry people and their political allies, eager for clues on where more oil might be hiding in the Arctic.

But Houseknecht wanted to make one thing clear right off the bat: he’s doesn’t like taking sides.

“I’m one of those persons who has always been registered independent voter — never missed an election, and always felt like people who belonged to one of the two parties ought to be taken out behind the woodshed somewhere,” Houseknecht said.

That statement was met with silence from the crowd.

As much as Houseknecht would like to avoid politics, he’s the guy who’s trying to figure out the Arctic Refuge’s oil potential. And that puts him in the crosshairs of a decades-long environmental fight.

“The thing about my job is that regardless of the estimate that we make, half of the population seems to be unhappy with us,” Houseknecht said. “So through the years as the administration goes from one party to the other, the bruises get equally distributed across my back.”

Houseknecht is bracing for some new bruises. The Trump administration has tasked his team with coming up with a new estimate of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s oil potential. The last one was completed in 1998.

Houseknecht explained coming up with a new estimate is a challenge — mainly because he doesn’t have much to work with.

“In essence there’s nothing new there. We have not assessed or reassessed the ANWR area for 20 years because there’s no new data. We have no reason to think differently today than we did 20 years ago,” Houseknecht said.

There’s been only one exploration well drilled in the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain, and Houseknecht can’t access the results — it’s kept under lock and key by the companies that drilled the well. And the seismic data Houseknecht does have access to was collected in the 1980s, with old, 2-D technology. At the moment, all Houseknecht can do is reprocess the old data using new technology.

But the Trump administration is making a controversial push to allow what’s called 3-D seismic testing in the Arctic Refuge’s coastal plain. That could give geologists a clearer picture of how much oil might be there.

Houseknecht warned his audience that the results of that testing might not be what they’re hoping for.

“If a 3-D data survey were collected on the ANWR coastal plain and we interpreted that survey and did an assessment, there’s no guarantee that numbers will go up or numbers will go down,” Houseknecht said.

If the Trump administration manages to allow 3-D seismic testing in the Arctic Refuge, Houseknecht would get a much better idea of its oil potential. He might see evidence that there are giant, easily recoverable oil pools hiding deep beneath the coastal plain. Or he might not. Either way, how much oil is actually there will have a big impact on what happens to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But speaking to reporters after his talk, Houseknecht said it isn’t his job to think about that.

“We’re trying to look at the whole geological picture and evaluate what’s there,” Houseknecht said. “The policy issues come later and do not involve me.”

Houseknecht expects to finish the new assessment of the Arctic Refuge’s oil potential late next year.

Elizabeth Harball is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk, covering Alaska’s oil and gas industry and environmental policy. She is a contributor to the Energy Desk’s Midnight Oil podcast series. Before moving to Alaska in 2016, Harball worked at E&E News in Washington, D.C., where she covered federal and state climate change policy. Originally from Kalispell, Montana, Harball is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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