Alaska pushing new plan for ANWR oil research

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell on Tuesday escalated his fight with the Obama administration over potential oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, by formally submitting a plan to conduct seismic research in the region.

The formal, 240-page application seeks approval to conduct 3D seismic surveys in winter 2014, with the goal of better documenting the oil and gas potential of the refuge’s 1.5-million-acre coastal plain.

“It’s important for Alaska not to just be on defense but also go on offense,” Parnell told reporters in unveiling his proposal Tuesday. “We believe the people of America deserve to know the value of the oil and gas resources below ground” as well as the environmental resources above it.

At issue is ANWR area 1002, a coastal plain in the 18-million-acre refuge that is closed to energy exploration and development but is not labeled protected wilderness. Limited 2D seismic surveys of the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain conducted three decades ago suggested it was likely to hold some 10 billion barrels of oil, but Parnell and Alaska Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan believe new geophysical research could better identify crude and gas lurking in the field.

Parnell offered up $50 million in state dollars to help fund the seismic exploration in May, with expectations that private industry and the federal government would put up the remaining two thirds in estimated costs. With Tuesday’s plan, Parnell is committing $50 million to fund the first year of a multi-year seismic program even if the state goes it alone, but Parnell said he expects the oil industry and contractors ultimately would have to join the effort.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is drafting a new conservation plan for the refuge. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has already told Parnell that any new seismic surveys are prohibited by law and would require an explicit authorization from Congress.

“The administration remains opposed to drilling in the refuge, and I support that position,” Jewell told Parnell in a June 28 letter. “The refuge is a vast, intact ecosystem, and continued protection of this ecologically important area is taken very seriously by the service.”

The heart of Parnell and Jewell’s dispute comes down to an interpretation of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, a 1980 law that designated most of the refuge as protected wilderness and required studies of its energy resources.

Jewell said the law created only a “time-limited authorization to conduct exploratory activity” in the 1002 area that expired when the Interior Department sent Congress an oil and gas report on the region in 1987.

But Sullivan argued the provisions authorizing surveys of ANWR area 1002’s resources are still very much alive — still written into the code of federal regulations — and they obligate the Interior secretary to approve a properly filed plan within 120 days after it is filed.

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, called the Obama administration “wrong” to oppose oil and gas exploration in the refuge. “Alaskans have proven we know how to responsibly develop oil and gas in some of harshest conditions on earth,” he said.

Begich vowed to work with colleagues in Alaska’s congressional delegation “to push the Obama administration to allow seismic work and exploration in ANWR.”

Current seismic research can be conducted “with virtually no impact on tundra,” Sullivan stressed. Borrowing an Obama administration line, Sullivan said research on ANWR’s oil and gas potential “certainly would be part of an all-of-the-above strategy.”

Better documenting the oil and gas resources in the refuge’s coastal plain — particularly if the numbers go up — could fan calls to open the area for exploration and development.

But environmentalists say the potential energy gains from drilling in the refuge would be small and aren’t worth the risks of damage to wildlife and habitat.

Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska regional director for The Wilderness Society, stressed the refuge’s genesis as a protected area.

“Gov. Parnell and other supporters of the oil industry keep turning a blind eye to the fact that the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is closed to oil and gas exploration and development, and they ignore the history of the Arctic Refuge and what it exists to protect,” she said. “It was established for the conservation of the landscape’s extraordinary values, including fish and wildlife populations, and habitat for the Porcupine caribou herd, polar bears, grizzly bears, other predators, musk oxen, Dall sheep, and migratory birds and fish.”

Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League noted that Parnell’s plan to investigate oil and gas resources in the “biologically sensitive coastal plain is a non-starter for the Obama administration.”

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, there are an estimated 10.4 billion barrels of oil harbored in the refuge’s coastal plain — which, at peak production, could supply the U.S. with up to 1.45 million barrels of oil daily.

But opening up ANWR is a political hot potato, and opponents have been able to block drilling in the refuge despite 20 votes on the issue in the House over the past 30 years. ANWR drilling proposals also have run into steep resistance in the Senate.

Drilling advocates last prevailed in advancing an ANWR drilling plan through the Senate in 2005, when the chamber voted narrowly to add the proposal to an unrelated budget bill. But the drilling provisions ultimately were stripped out of the measure, after House Republican leaders encountered resistance from more than two dozen moderates in their party.