Alaskans need to take initiative on Arctic refuge

A caribou finds coolness and relief from mosquitoes on a snowbank along the Hulahula River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This photograph in the 1002 coastal plain area of the refuge, where exploratory oil drilling would take place. (RICHARD J. MURPHY / ADN archive 2005)
A caribou finds coolness and relief from mosquitoes on a snowbank along the Hulahula River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. This photograph was taken in the 1002 coastal plain area of the refuge, where exploratory oil drilling would take place. (RICHARD J. MURPHY / ADN archive 2005)

New Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke was in Alaska last week and appeared to make a good impression on Alaskans he met and who listened to him in speeches. Zinke met with Alaska Native leaders to discuss issues like tribal rights and sovereignty and, the next day, spoke to a friendly audience at an Alaska Oil and Gas Association conference.

In that speech, Zinke voiced the doctrine of his boss, President Trump, on issues like energy, promising to help Alaska make the U.S. “energy dominant,” whatever that means, and signed executive orders to begin a new assessment of resources in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain and a review of restrictive land management rules in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Those went over well with the audience, but I also heard Zinke make a strong commitment to follow the National Environmental Policy Act in his speech. NEPA is the law, of course, but I still felt reassured that at least one Trump administration Cabinet member says he will abide by an environmental law.

[Interior secretary promises to reinvigorate Alaska oil industry]

In a press conference after the luncheon, reporters pushed to pin Zinke down on climate change. He acknowledged that changes in climate are happening and human activity is a factor, and said both sides in the debate are blowing some smoke. He then fell back on script, saying that the extent of human causation is still uncertain. He also said he “hadn’t read” the Paris climate accord, which I guessed is a way of saying he doesn’t know much about it.

As for ANWR, exploring the refuge’s coastal plain is apple pie for Alaskans, the poster child on restrictions blocking our state’s future. It is also a poster child for conservation groups, which see it as a last chance to save a chunk of the Alaska Arctic onshore from Alaskans.

Zinke didn’t propose opening ANWR – he knows that’s a buzz saw – but he does want to take the first step on an updated resource assessment. That’s not a bad idea, because Alaskans deserve to have a better feel for whether major oil discoveries are really possible. There’s a common belief in our state that ANWR holds another Prudhoe Bay.

Geologists do agree that possibilities are better for a major onshore oil find there than in any other part of the North Slope, but we’ll never really know unless we do exploration. Expectations can be dangerous, and there have been spectacular failures in drilling prospects that were widely considered sure bets, the most recent being Shell’s Chukchi Sea well.

[New Interior secretary says he’s ready to share federal management duties with Alaska Natives]

Getting a proper resource assessment will take money, though. There have been a lot of geologic assessments based on the regional geology and rock outcrops (some so wet with oil they could be set on fire), so the indications are good. There has been only limited geophysical profiling (a way of profiling underground rock formations with high-frequency ultrasonic sound) and this was in the 1980s with older-technology, two-dimensional seismic surveys. There’s basically no new information on which to base a new resource assessment.

In his speech, Zinke acknowledged that new seismic will be needed, preferably more advanced three-dimensional seismic, which shows more detail on what underground rock formations look like.

Three years ago, former Gov. Sean Parnell put forth a proposal for a limited state-led, one-winter program using the updated 3-D seismic, with the resource information being made public. Congressional approval isn’t needed for this, but a permit from the Department of the Interior is required and former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell nixed the plan.

Gov. Bill Walker should resurrect this plan, which was well thought out by the state Department of Natural Resources. Zinke would very likely approve it this time around.

Seismic can’t tell us oil is really in the rocks (only drilling will do that) but it will get us more information. But who could pay for this?

Parnell’s plan was budgeted at $50 million for the first winter, with an option for a second winter program if the results were favorable. The state had the money then. It doesn’t now.

Who else might pony up? Curiously, the major North Slope producing companies, who would logically seem to be prime candidates, appear uninterested. Possibly the political radioactivity of ANWR is a deterrent.

Arctic Slope Regional Corp., the Alaska Native development corporation for the North Slope, is the next best possibility. ASRC is strong financially with its own oil revenues and, most important, experience in oil operations (the corporation is now exploring state-owned lands on the Slope).

Even more important, ASRC owns subsurface mineral rights in ANWR and can further its own interests, as well as Alaska’s, by helping fund new exploration.

In his announcement, Zinke tasked the U.S. Geological Survey to develop a plan for the reassessment and to have it ready in about a month.

I doubt the federal government or industry will be willing to fund this.

If Alaskans are really serious about ANWR, they should step up to the plate with some money. As for ASRC, it would seem really smart politics for several Alaska Native corporations, including ASRC, to joint-venture some exploration funding. Precisely that happened in 1979 when several Native corporations joined BP as partners in a competitive federal outer continental shelf lease sale, bidding for nearshore Beaufort Sea acreage. The leases won eventually became the Endicott oil field, which is still producing (it is now owned by Hilcorp Energy).

To accomplish this, ASRC should agree to share its royalties from any production from ANWR with the other Native corporations. Revenue sharing is what was intended in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. ASRC wound up as sole owner of 91,000 acres of subsurface on ANWR through a technicality, a shrewd move on its part.

If would help our case in Congress to open ANWR if several Native corporations were included, not just ASRC but less-endowed corporations like Bering Straits Native Corp. of Nome and Calista Corp. in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Calista’s region is one of the state’s most economically distressed areas.

Zinke has opened up a small window of opportunity for ANWR. If Alaskans really want it, now is the time to step up. We have more at stake than anyone with our oil pipeline three-quarters empty.

Tim Bradner is an Anchorage writer and coeditor of Alaska Inc., a quarterly magazine.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Arctic Now, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at)