Alaska development authority attempts Arctic Refuge seismic surveys for oil

Holding seven leases in the coastal plan, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority is seeking a contractor to prepare for permitting

By Yereth Rosen, Alaska Beacon - August 18, 2023

Fall colors are seen on Aug. 24, 2015, along the Canning River on the western edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo by Katrina Liebich/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
Fall colors are seen on Aug. 24, 2015, along the Canning River on the western edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority is seeking a contractor to help it prepare for a seismic survey on oil leases it acquired in 2021, even though exploration activities within the refuge are disallowed for now. (Photo by Katrina Liebich/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

An Alaska state agency is preparing to conduct seismic surveys on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge even though a Biden administration moratorium on oil activities there was upheld by a federal judge earlier this month.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority has issued a notice requesting bids from companies that would carry out permitting and other preparatory work for a future seismic program on the refuge’s coastal plain. These surveys are used by companies to better understand where oil may exist deep underground.

The notice, published Wednesday, said the authority “is seeking a consultant to complete and prepare the environmental field work and documentation required for the pre-development permitting services for multiyear seismic program” on the leases it holds within the refuge coastal plain. The contract would be for one year, with three one-year extensions possible, the notice said.

Wednesday’s call for proposals replaces an earlier version published on July 26. AIDEA officials determined on Aug. 8 that there were such significant amendments proposed that the earlier version of the solicitation should be replaced with an update.

AIDEA, a state-owned development agency, holds seven leases within the refuge’s coastal plain. A controversial lease sale held in the last days of the Trump administration drew only scant interest and no bids from major oil companies. AIDEA was the main bidder in the auction held on Jan. 6, 2021, and now is the only entity holding leases. The other two companies that bid in the sale have since relinquished their leases.

For now, all exploration activities within the Arctic refuge coastal plain are on hold.

One of President Biden’s first actions on his first day in office was an executive order placing a moratorium on Arctic refuge oil development. On June 1, 2021, the Department of the Interior suspended Arctic National Wildlife Refuge leasing program activities, and it subsequently launched a new study to review environmental impacts that critics said the Trump administration had failed to properly consider before holding the lease sale.

Gleason’s Aug. 7 ruling upheld the Biden administration’s actions as legal, dismissing a lawsuit filed by AIDEA and the state of Alaska.

That decision was disappointing, AIDEA Executive Director Randy Ruaro said in a statement issued the following day.

“The Department of Interior failed to specify what specific items were deficient in the determination. This lack of clarity will likely lead to an open ended and costly delay. This is another example of why comprehensive permit reform is needed. Agency decisions must be final at some point and not subject to politics and the whims of changing administrations,” he said in the statement.

This is not the first time that AIDEA or other entities have attempted to conduct seismic surveys on the refuge coastal plain.

In 2021, AIDEA announced that it has awarded a contract to SAExploration to do preparatory work for a seismic program. AIDEA had authorized up to $1.5 million for that seismic prepatory work. The contract with SAExploration expired at the end of 2022, according to AIDEA documents.

Earlier efforts by SAExploration and the Kaktovik Inupiat Corp. to win permission for seismic surveys in the refuge coastal plain were stymied by failure to secure permits to disturb polar bears.

AIDEA representatives were not available to comment Thursday on the new attempt to start a seismic program. But critics of Arctic refuge oil development weighed in.

Brook Brisson, senior staff attorney with the environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska, characterized the plan as puzzling.

“Just last week, a judge rejected all of AIDEA’s claims and arguments that it had to be allowed to do harmful seismic on the coastal plain now. Seeing this request from AIDEA asking for proposals for companies to do seismic is a bit of a head scratcher because nothing has changed in the past week: all oil and gas activities are paused until the legal problems with the Trump leasing program are addressed. It’s time for AIDEA to stop wasting money and give up these leases,” she said in an emailed statement.

Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, said the plan indicates a lack of respect for Native rights. “It is completely insulting and disrespectful considering the court ruled last week that AIDEA cannot move forward with construction while legal problems with the leasing program are addressed, yet they continue to dismiss the concerns of Alaska Native people and the Gwich’in Nation, the very people who will have to live with the destruction they cause,” she said by email.

The Gwich’in Steering Committee represents Gwich’in tribes in Alaska and Canada and generally opposes the development largely because of potential impacts to the huge Porcupine caribou herd that uses the area for calving. Many groups representing the Inupiat people of the North Slope, however, support the proposed oil development.

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