The refuge, which covers more than 30,000 square miles, has been closed to commercial drilling for decades because of concerns about the impact on polar bears, caribou and other animals.
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 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 refuge, which covers more than 30,000 square miles, has been closed to commercial drilling for decades because of concerns about the impact on polar bears, caribou and other animals. Opening it up has been a priority for Republicans.
Congress has the final say over whether to allow drilling in the refuge, often referred to as ANWR.
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“This is a really big deal,” said Niel Lawrence, Alaska director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “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 anytime soon. But people who follow the industry said Saturday that 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 ANWR 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 said that even advanced three-dimensional seismic testing can do lasting damage to the tundra and contribute to thawing of the permafrost. Moreover, they said, climate change has already led to significant changes in the area, like polar bears that are more active on the coastal plain 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, 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.”
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 for updating 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,” Zinke said then.
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.