Native Corporations ask to start looking for oil in ANWR

Caribou graze on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop. (USFWS)

Two Alaska Native corporations are asking the federal government if they can start looking for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

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Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC) and Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation have submitted a 3-D seismic exploration plan for the Coastal Plain, or the 1002 area. They partnered with oil exploration company SAExploration. The companies want to begin a substantial exploration program this winter, encompassing the entirety of the biologically rich coastal plain, potentially involving hundreds of workers.

The corporations’ permit application was first reported by the Washington Post. The Post also reports that Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service responded by saying the plan, as currently submitted, is “not adequate” because it didn’t include proper studies on environmental impacts.

But after speaking at an oil conference in Anchorage on Thursday, top Interior official Joe Balash confirmed the agency is still considering the plan.

“They submitted an application, we’re reviewing it, along with the Fish and Wildlife Service,” Balash said. “And we’ll process that permit application just like any other.”

Balash says a key thing Interior will consider is compliance with Endangered Species Act protections for polar bears. According to the Bureau of Land Management, the agency will make a decision on the application by July.

Regarding Interior’s initial response to the application, BLM spokeswoman Lesli Ellis-Wouters said in an email, “such responses are part of a normal, iterative process whereby we work collaboratively with both the permit applicant and our sister federal agencies to identify shortcomings or gaps in information in the application so that we can fully and appropriately evaluate it.”

ASRC released a statement in response to the Washington Post’s reporting criticizing it for inaccuracies, “whether intentional or inadvertent,” although the corporation did not specify what in the article was incorrect.

ASRC added, “while we cannot comment on the proprietary details, we have always fully expected the seismic permitting and application process through various federal agencies to be very thorough. We welcome a robust review, as a successful seismic program will help to focus leasing to ensure minimal environment impact of future exploration activities in the 1002 Area.”

Environmental groups condemned the news. In a statement, the Alaska Wilderness League said exploration “would cause severe and long-lasting damage to the Arctic Refuge.”

This story has been updated to include a statement from ASRC.

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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