An Alaska Native village corporation that hopes to explore for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge fired back at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday, saying the agency is to blame for the corporation’s inability to conduct aerial surveys of polar bear dens this winter, a step required before the exploration can proceed.
Kaktovik Inupiat Corp. asserted that the U.S. Interior Department, which oversees the agency, mischaracterized the reason the surveys weren’t conducted on time, and asked the agency to apologize. The corporation is disputing an announcement from the department on Monday.
The Interior Department had said in its original written statement that Fish and Wildlife would not take action on the corporation’s request for the authorization.
The Interior Department had said the company confirmed that “three aerial den detection surveys, required as part of their request for an incidental harassment authorization of polar bears, were not conducted” by Feb. 13.
“The company was advised on Saturday that their request is no longer actionable, and the Service does not intend to issue or deny the authorization,” Interior said in its statement earlier this week.
The missed deadline means Kaktovik Inupiat Corp. can’t conduct the seismic exploration this winter, said Matthew Rexford, president of the corporation, in an interview Thursday.
Rexford said the missed deadline is not the corporation’s fault.
An Interior Department spokeswoman, Melissa Schwartz, said in an email on Thursday that the agency had no comment.
The Republican-led Congress in 2017 approved oil and gas activity in the 19-million-acre refuge. But President Joe Biden has said he opposes drilling in the refuge. On his first day in office, Biden placed a temporary moratorium on oil and gas activity there.
The village corporation, representing people from Kaktovik, the only village in the refuge, had applied with the agency last year for an incidental harassment authorization of threatened polar bears. The application was part of the corporation’s request to conduct seismic exploration activity on land it owns in the refuge, the corporation said.
To receive the incidental harassment authorization, the village corporation needed to conduct three aerial surveys of polar bear dens by Feb. 13. But to do the surveys, Kaktovik needed the incidental harassment authorization, Rexford said.
But the agency dropped the ball on providing the authorization for the aerial surveys, the village corporation asserted in its own press statement and in a letter Wednesday to Greg Siekaniec, regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“The agency’s own negligence, irresponsibility and failure to do its job resulted in their characterization of the application as no longer actionable,” Kaktovik Inupiat Corp. said in its statement. “It’s a decision that conveniently diverts accountability away from the USFWS while consequently failing the people of Kaktovik — the only village and private land owners in the refuge.”
The company tried to adjust plans for the aerial surveys to reduce the impact on polar bears, such as altering the altitude of flights or reducing noise levels, the its statement said.
“Our problem was that we couldn’t conduct the aerial surveys without the (incidental harassment authorization) from the USFWS, but we also couldn’t get permitted for seismic by that same agency without conducting them,” Rexford said in the press statement. “They held all the cards, and then we saw a lot of delays and excuses from them.”
Interior had told Kaktovik Inupiat Corp. that it was unable to review more than 6 million public comments for the authorization and also refine the approval in time, according to Kaktovik Inupiat’s statement.
“It was the agency that ran the time out, not KIC. They said the seismic activity was predicated on completion of the den detection surveys, but then they wouldn’t approve the aerial den detection work to begin. It was never authorized to commence in the first place, and they just kicked the can down to the road,” said Nathan Gordon, senior chairman of the corporation. “It’s convenient for them, and a lose-lose situation for our community.”
Rexford said Thursday that the company might apply again to conduct seismic work next winter. The effort involves large trucks crisscrossing the frozen tundra, issuing seismic waves to map the refuge’s underground rock formations for potential oil.