Shutdown delays oil exploration plans in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

President Donald Trump last year said opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling was a top Republican accomplishment.

But the partial government shutdown over his demand for $5 billion in border-wall funding is delaying exploration plans there.

Two shuttered Interior Department agencies, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, can’t advance the process to issue permits for seismic activity until the shutdown ends.

“Every day delayed now is a delay to collecting seismic activity," Jeff Hastings, chief executive of SAExploration, said Thursday, referring to the shutdown.

“It’ll mean less data (this winter),” he said

SAExploration, working with two Alaska Native corporations, applied this spring to conduct the first seismic shoot in the refuge’s 1.6-million-acre coastal plain in more than three decades.

The company applied to do the seismic work over two consecutive winter seasons, between December and May, once snow and ice conditions allow travel on the tundra. Heavy trucks rolling on rubber tracks to reduce impact would cross the frozen plain, using ground-vibrating gear in a hunt for oil-bearing rock formations.


Conservation groups oppose drilling in the refuge. But many Alaskans had long hoped Congress would allow leasing there, which happened last year, possibly opening the door to big oil discoveries that provide more jobs and state revenue.

The seismic data could inform oil companies about the coastal plain’s drilling prospects before the federal government holds its first-ever lease sale in the refuge, possibly in 2019.

Hastings said SAExploration had initially hoped to get the permits weeks ago. But there’s been a back-and-forth with agencies to improve protections for wildlife and the environment, including polar bears, he said.

Shortly before the shutdown, agency officials had indicated they were close to launching a public comment process, required before permits could be issued.

Counting the comment period and other steps, it will likely be at least six weeks before permits can be available, Hastings said. Each day that effort is delayed bites into the company’s plans to start work in February, he said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Thursday there’s “no clear end in sight” for the shutdown.

There could also be lawsuits to stop the seismic permits, if they’re not properly issued by the Trump administration, said Lois Epstein, Arctic program director with The Wilderness Society.

That could further delay the effort to collect seismic data, she said.

The shutdown, if long enough, could also cause other complications, Epstein said.

BLM’s 45-day public comment period on different leasing proposals in the refuge is scheduled to start Friday, she said. While people will be able to comment, federal agencies that aren’t allowed to work during the shutdown, such as the Fish and Wildlife Service, would presumably see their comment window shrink, she said.

“They would have less time to evaluate issues they have expertise on,” Epstein said.

As for any seismic activity this winter, SAExploration’s rigs are waiting in the industrial town of Deadhorse “ready to roll” for the three-day trip to the refuge after permits are issued, Hastings said.

“We knew it’d be a lot of effort to get the permits,” he said. “But I don’t think anyone on our side of the table thought it would take this long.”

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or