Interior says ANWR oil exploration off the table this winter, but company says it’s still pursuing options

The company behind a proposed seismic shoot in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain said it’s still trying to start oil exploration work this winter, despite a statement from Interior Department officials on Friday that it has been pushed to next winter.

“Options are still on the table,” Jeff Hastings, chief executive of SAExploration, said Friday.

One lingering possibility involves launching a brief seismic shoot after polar bears and cubs leave their birth dens in late spring, he said. That would also allow the company to stage its vehicles for next winter in the village of Kaktovik, the only community in the coastal plain.

Having the vehicles already in the 1.6 million-acre coastal plain could eliminate a crossing next winter when polar bears are still in their dens, said Joe Balash, assistant secretary of interior for land and minerals management.

“The question, I think, is what point are the cubs basically able to emerge from the den and leave so we do not suffer a ‘level A’ take,” Balash said, referring to the injury or death of a polar bear.

Hastings could not be reached Monday, as speakers for and against development in the refuge prepared for the last public hearing in Alaska before the federal government issues a final environmental report determining how development should proceed in the coastal plain.

The final public meeting will be in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday at the National Housing Center, said Jim Hart, a spokesman with the agency.


The final environmental report, following Congress’ late 2017 decision to allow lease sales and drilling in the 19 million-acre refuge, is expected to be released this fall, Hart said.

After that’s issued, the interior secretary is expected to issue a final decision that would lead to a lease sale, possibly this year, and later, drilling and other activity.

BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have also conducted environmental work associated with whether seismic activity could occur this winter, as SAExploration has proposed.

The plans involve the use of 45-ton trucks with large metal plates to vibrate the ground, creating the seismic waves that, like an ultrasound of an unborn infant, provide detailed images of rocks that might hold oil. But those images aren’t required before a lease sale is held.

SAExploration, working with two Alaska Native corporations, applied with the federal government last year to launch the shoot as early as December 2018. But the five-week partial federal government shutdown starting Dec. 22 delayed those plans as agencies put aside reviews of the seismic exploration plan. Now, required public comment periods and other steps mean the seismic work could not begin until at least April, officials have said.

Alex Hinson, a spokesman with the Interior Department overseeing the agencies, said in an email Friday that the seismic activity won’t begin until December.

But Hastings, with SAExploration, said in phone interviews that he is still working with officials on getting a late-season start on the survey work.

“We’re working closely with the agency,” he said, and trying to get answers on timing details and other questions.

The coastal plain has become the prime denning habitat for polar bears, with the sea ice that once served as the key habitat diminishing, said Steve Amstrup, chief scientist with Polar Bears International and formerly a federal research biologist focused on the animals.

“This polar bear population is already in steep decline,” he said, referring to the southern Beaufort Sea population. “So you go into the most important denning area for that population and disturb things, and it can only have negative effect.”

[Beaufort Sea polar bear population took big hit in early 2000s, study says]

Each winter, a few more than 20 female polar bears den across the coastal plain, he said, based on historical patterns.

Mothers and cubs emerge from birth dens in late March or April, and the cubs stay nearby for up to two weeks, according to BLM’s draft environmental report.

Getting its vehicles to Kaktovik and conducting seismic work would require SAExploration to build and pack snow roads, essentially large snow trails, so it can drive heavy-duty vehicles and transport materials without damaging the tundra.

It’s possible snow roads can be built even into May, if snow and ice conditions meet requirements, said Melissa Head, who manages the state’s ice-road permitting office.

The roads in Alaska typically vanish by mid-May.

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