The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority on Wednesday approved a measure to spend up to $1.5 million to develop a multi-year seismic plan to explore for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain.
In a 7-0 vote, board members of the quasi-independent state agency said it has the right to pursue permitting activity in the refuge.
The federal government issued seven 10-year leases to the agency in the last days of the Trump administration, early this year. The agency spent $12.8 million on the leases, in hopes it could team up with an oil company for future exploration and possibly oil production. The refuge leasing program was required in a 2017 law passed by a Republican-led Congress.
But the Biden administration suspended those leases earlier this month — along with two other leases issued to small companies — saying the refuge leasing program set up under President Donald Trump is legally flawed. President Joe Biden said during his campaign he would permanently protect the refuge, and he took steps to block drilling there on his first day in office.
The state agency has asked the U.S. Interior Department to explain the statutory and regulatory reasons allowing the suspension, and has not yet heard back, said Alan Weitzner, the agency’s executive director, on Wednesday.
“At this time we have valid and enforceable leases, and we’ll pursue those rights under those leases,” Weitzner said.
The new plan will authorize Weitzner to seek quotes and sign contracts with engineers and other professionals to carry out studies, collect data and conduct pre-development permitting work to support a seismic exploration program, according to the resolution.
In seismic exploration, heavy trucks crisscross the tundra during winter, using seismic waves to map underground rock formations that might hold oil.
Rick Steiner, a former marine conservation professor with the University of Alaska, was one of handful of speakers who criticized the motion on Wednesday.
He said it’s unconscionable that the agency would pursue new oil production as climate change threatens the planet.
Some also spoke in favor of the measure, including the Resource Development Council, an AIDEA spokeswoman said.