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Trump administration takes next step toward seismic exploration this winter in Alaska’s Arctic refuge

  • Author: Anchorage Daily News
  • Updated: December 15, 2020
  • Published December 15, 2020

The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

The Trump administration has taken another step toward allowing an Alaska Native village corporation to begin searching for oil and gas drilling opportunities in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge this winter.

The Bureau of Land Management on Tuesday put out the environmental assessment of Kaktovik Inupiat Corp.’s application to conduct seismic exploration in the refuge’s coastal plain. The program would take place this winter on about 350,000 acres of federal and Native corporation land, according to BLM.

“We’ve received a tremendous amount of input from our federal, state and tribal partners in the development of this environmental assessment,” BLM Alaska director Chad Padgett said in a written statement announcing the release. “It’s important that we are responsive to our community’s needs while providing a responsible path forward for economic opportunities for our North Slope communities.”

After years of controversy, Congress in 2017 approved oil and gas exploration in the coastal plain, the northern 1.6 million acres of the 19 million-acre refuge.

The BLM will accept public input on the assessment through Dec. 30. The first oil lease sale in the refuge’s coastal plain is scheduled to take place Jan. 6. That means it is highly unlikely that data from the seismic exploration would be available ahead of the lease sale.

Kaktovik Inupiat Corp. represents Alaska Native shareholders from Kaktovik, the only Alaska Native village in the refuge. Leaders of the corporation have said they hope seismic exploration will lead to economic opportunities and energy resources for the village.

Seismic exploration involves using huge trucks that roll over the frozen tundra on specialized tracks and vibrate the ground, collecting data on where oil or gas might be located. The data would help oil companies know what land to bid on in an oil lease sale.

The Trump administration’s push to allow seismic work in the refuge has drawn protest from environmental groups concerned about impacts to polar bears. On Tuesday they criticized the rigor of the environmental analysis and the amount of time the public has to weigh in.

“This is another harmful step that shows how desperately the current administration wants to turn over one of the nation’s most sensitive ecosystems to the oil industry before President Trump leaves office,” said Wilderness Society Alaska state director Karlin Itchoak in a statement.

Also on Tuesday, conservation groups and the Gwich’in Steering Committee filed a motion in U.S. District Court asking it to disallow BLM from authorizing seismic exploration in the refuge and to halt the agency from giving oil companies leases sold in the January sale.

According to Alaska BLM spokeswoman Lesli Ellis-Wouters, additional state and federal permits will be required before seismic exploration can begin.

The agency has already received more than 100,000 public comments on the proposal during an earlier stage of the environmental review, BLM said.

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