WASHINGTON -- Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell on Tuesday escalated his fight with the Obama administration over potential oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by formally submitting a plan to conduct seismic research in the region.
The 240-page application seeks approval to conduct 3-D seismic surveys in winter 2014, with the goal of better documenting the oil and gas potential of the refuge's 1.5-million-acre coastal plain.
"It's important for Alaska not to just be on defense but also go on offense," Parnell told reporters as he unveiled his proposal Tuesday. "We believe the people of America deserve to know the value of the oil and gas resources below ground" as well as the environmental resources above it.
At issue is Area 1002, a coastal plain in the 18-million-acre refuge that is closed to energy exploration and development but not labeled protected wilderness.
Limited 2-D seismic surveys of the plain conducted three decades ago suggested it was likely to hold some 10 billion barrels of oil, but Parnell and Alaska Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan believe new geophysical research could better identify crude and natural gas lurking in the field.
Parnell offered up $50 million in state money to help fund the seismic exploration in May, with expectations that private industry and the federal government would put up the remaining two-thirds of estimated costs.
With Tuesday's plan, Parnell is committing $50 million to fund the first year of a multiyear seismic program even if the state goes it alone, but Parnell said he expects the oil industry and contractors ultimately would have to join the effort.
New plan in works
The federal Fish and Wildlife Service is drafting a new conservation plan for the refuge. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has already told Parnell that any new seismic surveys are prohibited by law and would require explicit authorization from Congress.
"The administration remains opposed to drilling in the refuge, and I support that position," Jewell told Parnell in a June 28 letter. "The refuge is a vast intact ecosystem, and continued protection of this ecologically important area is taken very seriously by the service."
The heart of Parnell and Jewell's dispute comes down to an interpretation of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, a 1980 law that designated most of the refuge as protected wilderness and required studies of its energy resources.
Jewell said the law created only a "time-limited authorization to conduct exploratory activity" in Area 1002 that expired when the Interior Department sent Congress an oil and gas report on the region in 1987.
But Sullivan argued the provisions authorizing surveys of the refuge's Area 1002 s resources are still very much alive -- still written into the code of federal regulations -- and they obligate the Interior secretary to approve a properly filed plan within 120 days after it is filed.
Seismic research can be conducted "with virtually no impact on tundra," Sullivan stressed. Borrowing an Obama administration line, Sullivan said research on the refuge's energy potential "certainly would be part of an all-of-the-above strategy."
Better documenting the energy resources in the refuge's coastal plain -- particularly if the numbers go up -- could fan calls to open the area for exploration and development.
Drilling called risky
But environmentalists say the potential energy gains from drilling in the refuge would be small and aren't worth the risks of damage to wildlife and habitat.
Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said Parnell's plan to investigate oil and gas resources in the "biologically sensitive coastal plain is a non-starter for the Obama administration."
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there are an estimated 10.4 billion barrels of oil harbored in the refuge's coastal plain -- which, at peak production, could supply the U.S. with nearly 1.5 million barrels of oil daily.
Opening the refuge is a political hot potato, and congressional opponents have blocked efforts to allow drilling there.