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First application to drill in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge doesn’t consider wildlife impacts

"This plan is not adequate," the Interior Department said.

Every fall, Long-tailed Duck gather near Kaktovik on the northern edge of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Credit: Sylvain CORDIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Every fall, Long-tailed Duck gather near Kaktovik on the northern edge of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Credit: Sylvain CORDIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

The Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service issued a scathing response to the first permit application to begin seismic testing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), submitted by two Alaska Native corporations and a small oil services firm.

The seismic work application is the first step toward developing oil and gas drilling in the pristine arctic refuge, which was opened up to fossil fuel development by the Trump administration last year. But as the Interior Department’s response to the application shows, it may not be as easy as some companies might have expected to make the government’s push for energy development in the refuge a reality.

“This plan is not adequate,” the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) said in its reply to the permit application, obtained by the Washington Post. The agency said the application showed “a lack of applicable details for proper agency review.” This includes failing to include any studies about the impacts of the proposed seismic work and equipment on wildlife, the arctic tundra, or the aquatic conditions in the area.

“There is no documentation of environmental effects, whether positive or adverse,” the FWS noted. According to the Washington Post, the department’s response “showed no sign of approval.”

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The permit application, submitted by Kuukpik Corp., a joint venture with oil services firm and project operator SAExploration, the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., and the Kaktovik Inupiat Corp., is the only one received by the FWS so far. The proposal details plans to create ice roads and use smaller vehicles and sleds, as well as use biodegradable lubricants in order to minimize environmental harm. The operation would be carried out by 300 workers and also use giant sleds, airstrips, and explosives in order to search for and map underground fossil fuel reserves.

Commenting on the application, Peter Nelson, director of federal lands at advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife, told the Washington Post: “One thing is pretty notable: how many inaccuracies and missing pieces of information there are. It really provides more evidence that industry and the Trump administration are being pretty reckless with this process.”

For nearly a decade, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) has been introducing bills to open the refuge up to the oil and gas industry. Last fall, bolstered by a fossil fuel friendly administration, Murkowski — who is the head of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee — finally found her opportunity to insert the proposal into the Republican tax bill.

The proposal to open up drilling in the Arctic refuge, however, has faced overwhelming public opposition over the years. The refuge is home to many threatened and endangered species, including migratory birds and polar bears.

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Alaska’s coastal plain, 1.5 million acres of protected land known as Area 1002, is also the primary breeding ground for a unique herd of 195,000 porcupine caribou — which are, in turn, a staple for the indigenous Gwich’in tribe, who say their way of life would be irreparably changed if oil and gas interests are able to open the area to development.

The move hasn’t received support from all Republicans either. In December, 12 Republican representatives sent a letter to Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) expressing their concerns about opening up oil and gas exploration in a refuge that “stands as a symbol of our nation’s strong and enduring national legacy.”

The move has also be criticized for its poor economic accounting. While the Trump administration suggested that royalties could bring in as much as $3.6 billion over the next decade, refuge experts point out that would require leasing all 1.5 million acres at a high market price.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates there are 7.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil reserves. No drilling, however, has taken place in the area since it became a refuge in 1980; no seismic work has taken place since the mid-1980s.

The trio of companies that submitted their seismic permit application to FWS hope to begin work on December 10. The proposal also detailed plans to conduct operations as late as May 31, which according to the FWS response, “impinges on the beginning of the calving and nesting season of wildlife using this area.”