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Trump administration releases new Arctic refuge seismic proposal submitted by Native village corporation

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

A Native village corporation has submitted plans to federal regulators to conduct seismic exploration this winter with an embattled company in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a potential step before drilling can occur there.

The plan, submitted by Kaktovik Inupiat Corp., an Alaska Native village corporation, will be sharply scaled back from an ambitious plan that KIC was involved in in 2018. That larger plan stalled after it was submitted to the federal government for approval.

Congress in 2017 approved oil exploration and development in a portion of the 19-million-acre refuge. BLM is preparing to hold the federal government’s first-ever lease sale in the 1.6-million-acre coastal plain, allowing oil companies to acquire the rights to drill.

Instead of a seismic program mapping 2,600 square miles in the coastal plain of the refuge, as the original plan proposed, the new plan will cover about 850 square miles and will be conducted primarily on land owned by the corporation, said Matthew Rexford, president of KIC.

KIC represents Alaska Native shareholders from Kaktovik, the only Alaska Native village in the refuge.

Exploration could lead to oil production that supports the economy in Alaska and Kaktovik, a village of about 250 people, Rexford said. A natural gas discovery could provide the village with affordable energy, he said.

The community “looks forward to experiencing the same benefits every other community in America has available to them,” KIC said in a prepared statement.

“Technology advancements over the decades, stringent controls, and careful planning of each program helps ensure that the land is left undamaged,” KIC said.

The Bureau of Land Management on Friday released the plan, setting a two-week public comment period through Nov. 6.

That angered conservation groups opposed to oil drilling in the refuge that said the comment period is too short.

The proposal is “a mad rush to create new facts on the ground before a potential change in presidential power,” Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, said in a statement.

Rexford said guides from the village will be part of the work, to help prevent harm to polar bears that den in the coastal plain in winter, and to caribou that will have migrated south when exploration occurs, Rexford said.

An aerial infrared survey to find polar bear dens should begin in January 2021, KIC said in a statement.

The seismic mapping of underground oil potential will begin as soon as permits are available. Snow and ice on the ground must be thick enough so vehicles can travel without damaging the tundra, Rexford said.

Conservation groups said on Friday that a study of aerial infrared surveys in Alaska, published in the journal PLOS One in February, found that they failed to identify 55 percent of known polar bear dens.

Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, said the seismic activity will damage the refuge and caribou and other animals needed to feed the villages, including Arctic Village, outside the refuge’s southern boundary.

KIC says in the plan that its operator will be SAExploration, a seismic company currently in bankruptcy. Some of SAExploration’s previous leaders face federal fraud charges. Working with KIC and ASRC, a regional Alaska Native corporation, SAExploration led the 2018 seismic proposal for ANWR that did not advance after it was submitted.

Mike Faust, SAExploration’s new chief executive, has said SAExploration entered bankruptcy with a plan that strengthens its balance sheet and clears much of its debt. Faust has said the company has taken steps to prevent improper actions from happening again.

Faust on Friday referred questions about the application to KIC.

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