Energy

State agency picks companies to plan Arctic refuge oil exploration, despite suspension by Biden administration

The state agency that won oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge said Wednesday it intends to hire a company to take steps that could lead to oil exploration.

The announcement from the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority came one day after the Interior Department announced it is opening a 60-day public comment period for a new environmental review of the oil leasing program in the refuge.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland signed an order in June temporarily halting all department activities in the refuge related to the leases. She said the leasing program implemented during the Trump administration contains “multiple legal deficiencies,” including that the administration did not adequately consider alternatives. Interior said the leases were suspended and could eventually be terminated.

Melissa Schwartz, a spokesman with the Interior Department, said in an email Wednesday that Haaland’s suspension of all activities related to the leasing program, as of June 1, “remains in effect.”

The leader of an Indigenous group opposed to drilling in the refuge said AIDEA’s move appears to be a confrontational step by the state of Alaska as the Biden administration takes another look at the program.

“They are being petty, inconsiderate and violating the rights of the Indigenous people whose lives will be impacted,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, one of several groups suing to stop oil and gas activity in the refuge.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy criticized the Biden administration’s new review of the program as an “attempt to shut down Alaska’s primary industry to appease radical environmental groups determined to turn our state into one big national park.”

The timing of AIDEA’s announcement was a coincidence and the agency is not trying to be confrontational, said Alan Weitzner, executive director of the agency.

“We have valid, enforceable leases and we are asserting our rights under those leases,” he said on Wednesday.

Drilling in the refuge was approved by a Republican-led Congress in 2017.

Weitzner said he did not know if the agency’s efforts to conduct planning work in the refuge would result in a legal dispute. He said the Interior Department has failed to specifically describe to the agency the legal flaws it believes exist in the leasing program, he said.

“Everything we have looked at shows there is not a need for this second (review),” he said.

The agency said it will hire seismic exploration firm SAExploration to conduct what it described as pre-development planning and permitting work.

Weitzner said the agency’s board has approved up to $1.5 million to be spent on the work. The activity would require field work in the refuge, and permitting approval from the federal government and other authorities, he said.

The agency would like to see the first phase of work begin this year before winter sets in, Weitzner said.

That effort could lead to a second phase of field work, the actual seismic studies, he said. The seismic work would be much more extensive. It typically involves specialized trucks rolling over the frozen, snow-topped tundra, using equipment to issue seismic waves and explore the earth for oil and gas.

That seismic work will also require permitting from the federal government, and other authorities, he said.

The agency also listed the following subcontractors:

• Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation, representing Alaska Native shareholders from the only village in the refuge, will provide community outreach and stakeholder relations.

• SALA, LLC, a consulting company, will provide permitting support services.

• ERC Alaska will provide environmental and wildlife support.

The Securities and Exchange Commission last year brought fraud charges against SAExploration.

SAExploration, without admitting or denying the allegations, said it would follow the agency’s statutes. It removed executives who had been involved in the alleged misconduct and strengthened its internal policies.

Weitzner said late Wednesday that SAExploration management has changed since the alleged activities took place.

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