An Interior Department memo has proposed lifting restrictions on seismic surveys in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which may open it to drilling.
An internal Interior Department memo has proposed lifting restrictions on exploratory seismic studies in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a possible first step toward opening the pristine wilderness area to oil and gas drilling.
The document proposes ending a restriction that had limited exploratory drilling to the period from Oct. 1, 1984, to May 31, 1986. It also directs the agency to provide an environmental assessment and a proposed rule allowing for new exploration plans. The document, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, was first reported by The Washington Post.
The Arctic refuge, which covers more than 30,000 square miles, has been closed off to commercial drilling for decades because of concerns about the impact on polar bears, caribou and other animals in the region. Opening it up has been a top priority for Republicans. Doing so, even to determine how much oil is available, would be politically explosive and set the stage for bitter fights between the administration and environmental groups.
Congress has the final say over whether to allow new drilling in the refuge, often referred to as A.N.W.R.
“This is a really big deal,” Niel Lawrence, Alaska director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said. “This is a frontal attack in an ideological battle. The Arctic is the holy grail.”
With oil prices hovering near $50 per barrel, it is not clear if companies even want to drill in the refuge in the near future. But people who follow the industry said Saturday they thought the Interior Department’s proposal to allow seismic exploration was an important step in taking stock for the future.
“The last thing enviros want is to get a more accurate picture of the resources underneath A.N.W.R. because it could be extensive. I don’t think $50 a barrel is going to last forever,” said Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, which promotes fossil fuels. “What are they afraid of? What is wrong with learning more about what is going on? All of a sudden they’re afraid of science?”
Environmental activists assert that even advanced three-dimensional seismic testing can do lasting damage to the tundra and contribute to thawing of the permafrost. Moreover, they say, climate change has already led to significant changes in the area, like polar bears that are now more active on the coastal plain than ever before, because the sea ice they rely on is receding.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife, called the agency’s move “reckless and irresponsible.” Allowing seismic testing, she said, lays the groundwork for opening the Arctic refuge. “It’s like the camel’s nose under the tent,” she said.
According to the memo, dated Aug. 11, James W. Kurth, the acting director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, told the regional director of the agency’s Alaska office that officials had been told to “update the regulations concerning geological and geophysical exploration of the coastal plain, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.” The attached proposal eliminates date restrictions that the agency had imposed for submitting an exploration plan and moves to allow them “in any given year.”
The memo does not provide a legal justification for allowing new exploration. In 2013, the Obama administration rejected an effort by Alaska to perform a seismic survey over 2,300 square miles of plain in the area, arguing that the agency’s authority to review and approve such plans expired in 1987. A federal judge in Alaska in 2015 upheld that decision, saying that while the law was “ambiguous” the administration’s argument was “based on a permissible and reasonable construction of statute.”
Heather Swift, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, declined to comment on the memo but referred to a May 31 event that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke held in Anchorage when he signed a secretarial order reassessing the current management plans of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It calls to update estimates of the amount of oil beneath the ground there.
“I’m a geologist. Science is a wonderful thing: it helps us understand what is going on deep below the surface of the earth,” Mr. Zinke said at the time. “We need to use science to update our understanding of the 1002 area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as Congress considers important legislation to responsibly develop there one day. This order takes the important first step in a smart and measured approach to energy development in A.N.W.R.”
After the proposed rule appears in the Federal Register it will have to go through a public comment period and pass other bureaucratic hurdles — a process that experts said could take about 18 months — before companies could bid to conduct exploration.
Joe McMonigle, a senior energy policy analyst at Hedgeye Potomac Research in Washington, said he thought seismic studies increased the chances of opening up the Arctic refuge, despite low oil prices.
“If you’re going to reopen A.N.W.R., you want to have an informed decision,” he said. “I suspect it will increase the odds. It will show greater potential there and make it more attractive to companies.”