Hawaii & Alaska
A lease sale is scheduled for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Coastal Plain later this year, but the federal agency tasked with its management has reservations about the current alternatives under consideration in comments filed with the Bureau of Land Management. (Photo/Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News)

US Fish and Wildlife Service wants most conservative drilling option for Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

The federal agency tasked with managing the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is recommending the most conservation-minded option available for oil and gas development in the Coastal Plain.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska officials asked the Bureau of Land Management to select Alternative D-2 from the draft environmental impact statement published in December for leasing areas of the roughly 1.5 million-acre Coastal Plain. The alternative request and other management recommendations were made in 59 pages of comments on the draft EIS submitted to BLM March 13.

Alternative D-2 would open just more than 1 million acres to oil and gas leasing; however, activity on 708,000 of those acres would be restricted by a “no surface activity” designation and another 328,000 acres would be subject to some limitations on type and timing of use to minimize development impacts on wildlife.

The D-2 management option would meet the requirements of the tax reform bill while also best preserving the wilderness features prescribed in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, according to the memo signed by FWS Alaska Director Greg Siekaniec.

The act, best known as ANILCA, doubled the size of the refuge and also opened the door to potential oil and gas activity in the Coastal Plain. Additionally, the FWS preferred alternative would maintain the natural qualities of rivers within the refuge that could qualify to be added to the National Wild and Scenic River System and best aligns with Endangered Species and Marine Mammal Protection Act management requirements, the memo states.

For comparison, the least restrictive alternative would open all 1.5 million acres for leasing and just 359,000 acres — mostly along rivers in the refuge and near Kaktovik — would fall under the designation for no surface occupancy.

BLM Alaska officials noted that winter exploration activities could be conducted on no surface occupancy areas, which could be developed using directional drilling from adjacent facilities, but permanent infrastructure would be prohibited.

Alternative D-2 would place areas across the Coastal Plain under the no surface occupancy designation and 526,000 acres mostly in the southeast portion of the refuge would be off-limits to leasing to protect Porcupine caribou herd summer calving grounds.

The eastern Alaska-western Canada caribou use large swaths of the Coastal Plain as calving grounds and what impact oil development could have on the herd has been a primary debate point in the battle over ANWR oil exploration.

The ANWR rider to the Tax Cut and Jobs Act passed in December 2017 directs the Interior Department to hold two oil and gas lease sales, each covering at least 400,000 acres of the coastal plain before 2025. It limits permanent development to 2,000 acres of federal land. FWS and BLM are sister agencies under the Interior Department umbrella.

The Alaska Native village corporation Kaktovik Inupiat Corp. also owns about 92,000 acres around the coastal village of Kaktovik within the refuge that would also be open to development.

FWS Alaska officials also stressed a desire for in-depth consultation with their BLM counterparts to reach a consensus on oil and gas decisions that would impact the wildlife and aquatic resources managed by the service.

Interior spokeswoman Molly Block noted in response to questions about how the BLM will weigh the FWS comments in the final EIS that more than 1 million comments were submitted on the draft Coastal Plain EIS.

“BLM has an obligation to consider all of these comments — including those from its sister agency and the federal family — and anticipates they will inform the final EIS in multiple ways,” Block wrote via email.

Interior leaders have stressed a desire to hold a Coastal Plain lease sale late this year and public meeting presentations indicate the final draft of the EIS could be released in late summer.

Exactly what level of interest industry will have in the Coastal Plain leases is also unknown. The most recent U.S. Geological Survey assessment of the oil and gas underneath the coastal plain, done in 1998, put the mean oil estimate at 7.6 billion barrels for the Coastal Plain 1002 area.

A plan for a 3-D seismic survey over much of the Coastal Plain last winter was scuttled by the extended government shutdown and a lengthy review by Fish and Wildlife regarding the impacts of the survey on denning polar bears.

The FWS comments also detailed a strong belief that polar bear denning habitat should be given significant consideration when lease offerings and associated stipulations are made.

The Coastal Plain is a primary area of the Slope the bears use for denning and surveys of denning habitat should be required under all development options, according to FWS officials. The importance of those surveys will likely continue to escalate as land-based denning increases while sea ice declines, the memo states.

FWS officials are also requesting that the final EIS explain how BLM will define the areas of the Coastal Plain with the highest hydrocarbon potential because the law authorizing exploration explicitly states that the 400,000-plus acres offered in each lease sale must correspond to the areas deemed to have the best resource potential.

“Specifically, it is not clear how the draft EIS arrives at delineating an area of moderate potential and how this area meets the high (hydrocarbon potential) criteria set forth in the Tax Act for lease sales,” the memo states.

The draft environmental review also lacks sufficient description of how BLM plans to prevent or deal with the introduction of invasive species to the refuge from oil development, according to the memo.

Finally, FWS officials want more examination of how the rapidly warming Arctic climate will impact the Coastal Plain and oil and gas infrastructure in particular. Their memo cites a recent study that concluded melting permafrost “will be an engineering hazard to (North Slope) infrastructure by mid-century.”

“Effects of these changes have shown to be more severe in areas with topographic complexity such as the (Coastal Plain),” it states. “We recommend that studies like these be included in the analysis of potential impacts to various development scenarios.”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

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