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Oil exploration could leave decades-long scarring in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska researchers report

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain in summer. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Modern seismic work conducted for oil companies could leave decades-long scars on the tundra, similar to tracks left by heavy vehicles in the 1980s, according to a paper led by researchers with the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

An official with SAExploration, a company that has proposed doing such controversial work in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, disagreed with the paper’s findings and said modern technology and practices can prevent such damage.

The research paper, published in April in the journal Ecological Applications, comes as the federal government plans to auction leases for oil exploration in the refuge this year for the first time.

Seismic exploration, in which vehicles travel over protective ice and snow to analyze oil potential underground, would likely precede drilling in the refuge.

SAExploration, working with Alaska Native entities from the North Slope, submitted a plan to the Bureau of Land Management in 2018 to conduct a seismic shoot in the refuge.

At this point, the company has no current plans for acquiring a permit, the company said in a statement.

“Right now we are assessing the interest in the industry for doing that,” said Mike Faust, chief executive of the company, on Monday.

The researchers argue that more information is needed before seismic activity in the refuge is allowed.

“Current regulations are not adequate to eliminate impacts from these activities,” the 20-page report says.

The paper analyzed “landscape impacts” from seismic work conducted in the refuge in the mid-1980s that relied on older, two-dimensional seismic shoots. It also looked at past studies of impacts from three-dimensional seismic shoots starting in the 1990s.

The paper estimated potential impacts of SAEexploration’s 2018 proposal. Vehicles would make about 40,000 miles of tracks in the refuge as they crisscrossed the tundra in a grid pattern, the paper said.

About 3,700 miles of those winter trails, or close to 10%, would still be visible a decade after the shoot, the paper says. The impacts include thawing permafrost and permanent changes in vegetation.

The paper’s conclusions are in contrast to a BLM assertion in 2018 that seismic activity has “insignificant" impacts on the land, the University of Alaska Fairbanks said in a statement about the paper. Such a view would allow the agency to conduct a less-stringent environmental review before seismic exploration can occur in the refuge, the university said.

BLM declined to comment on the paper, a spokeswoman with the agency said on Monday.

The impact of modern seismic surveys on the tundra has not been studied much, said Martha Raynolds, the paper’s lead author and a researcher at UAF’s Institute of Arctic Biology.

The refuge’s unique conditions could make it especially susceptible to damage, she said.

The refuge can be hillier and windier than areas of the North Slope that have been explored to the west, the paper says. Many areas in the coastal plain lack enough snow cover to protect the tundra from vehicles, it says.

“More needs to be known about the Arctic refuge," Raynolds said.

Raynolds said vehicles collecting modern 3D data are similar to those used in the 1980s when companies collected 2D data.

Scarring from those old shoots is still easily visible from the air. Today’s vehicles can leave long-lasting damage on the tundra because they are so heavy, she said.

“The methods used for 3D seismic exploration, in terms of the effect on the landscape, are not really different from 2D,” Raynolds said.

Also, modern shoots use a tighter network of survey lines above ground, with larger crews and more vehicles, compared to earlier seismic shoots, the paper said.

“The impacts are going to be as bad or worse (as in the 1980s)," but with many more miles of trails proposed, Raynolds said.

Faust with SAExploration challenged the paper’s conclusion.

The paper relies heavily on the 1980s seismic work conducted in the refuge, he said. But exploration vehicles and seismic technology changed substantially starting about 20 years ago, reducing the footprint on the tundra, he said.

Devices that detect seismic waves today are much more efficient, allowing for lighter vehicles and reducing the need for vehicles to pass over the same tracks multiple times as they did in the past, Faust said.

Vehicles now employ rubber tires or tracks that lower the pressure on the tundra, compared to more harmful steel tracks used in earlier shoots, he said.

Tracks from a 2016 seismic shoot by SAExploration, a little west of the refuge, were no longer visible two years later, he said.

“It has completely recovered,” he said.

Raynolds said vehicle trails carved in areas with a lot of water, like alongside a lake, can disappear within a couple of years. The ice helps protect plants.

But seismic vehicles and tractors pulling camp trailers on sleds can crush drier, mossier areas, she said.

In those areas, modern vehicles can leave damage that last decades. The leftover tracks collect water and absorb more sunlight, she said.

The result can be “dramatic landscape disturbances" as the ground absorbs more heat and permafrost thaws, said Anna Liljedahl, a coauthor of the paper, formerly with UAF and now an associate scientist the Woods Hole Research Center.

The surface sinks as the ice melts, she said. The vegetation also changes.

“You completely change the composition of the landscape because suddenly there are gullies where there were none before,” she said.

Complicating the picture are annual average temperatures that have risen several degrees in the area since the mid-1980s, changing snow cover and thawing permafrost, researchers said.

“We need to understand how oil and gas development could permanently change the landscape of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, especially as the Arctic warms faster than anywhere else on Earth,” Liljedahl said.

The paper, with eight co-authors, has been peer-reviewed, Raynolds said. Experts from different areas in the university, including hydrology and Arctic engineering, contributed.

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