Interior: No 3-D Seismic exploration in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge this winter

Map of northern Alaska showing location of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, ANWR-en:1002 area, and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPRA).
Map of northern Alaska showing location of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, ANWR-en:1002 area, and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A). (Map courtesy USGS)

An Interior official has confirmed that there will be no 3-D seismic exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge this winter.

Steve Wackowski, Interior’s senior advisor for Alaska affairs, made the announcement at a public meeting held Tuesday in Kaktovik.

That means although Interior still aims to hold an oil lease sale in the Refuge’s coastal plain this year, companies will have less information about where the most promising acreage might be.

Originally, a company called SAExploration, partnered with Native corporations Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation, had applied to shoot seismic across the Refuge’s entire coastal plain, encompassing 2,600 square miles.

Seismic exploration can only be done in winter, and the company needed approvals from Interior to do the work. Originally, the agency had hoped to get the project permitted last summer.

But in November, top Interior official Joe Balash acknowledged the agency was pressed for time to complete the approvals. Balash said it was taking time for the company to work with the Fish and Wildlife Service on compliance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

And according to a report in the Anchorage Daily News, the government shutdown further delayed the work. Before the shutdown started, the Bureau of Land Management had yet to publish a notice on its environmental review on the seismic program, which would have kicked off a weeks-long public comment period before the final approval could be issued.

However, that process is still moving forward.

“The status of the application is still pending,” an Interior spokesperson said in a text message. “The applicant has asked us to amend both permits to reflect a December 2019 start date, and it should be coming out in the coming weeks.”

Like almost everything to do with oil development in the Refuge, the seismic exploration proposal is controversial. A number of environmental groups had raised concerns about seismic exploration in the Refuge’s coastal plain, saying they were concerned it could disturb the population of polar bears that den there. In January, Alaska Native groups and environmentalists staged a protest at SAExploration’s offices in Houston.

Those groups celebrated the news that this winter’s seismic exploration program has been delayed — Sierra Club executive Director Michael Brune called it a “victory.”

“Any oil company foolish enough to ignore the writing on the wall and pursue leasing in the Arctic Refuge will be pursuing a risky investment and drawing the condemnation of both the American public and the financial industry,” Brune said in a statement.

This story has been updated.

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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