Interior Department halts seismic surveys for oil in Alaska’s Arctic refuge

The company proposing to survey parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain missed a deadline for its plan to protect polar bears during the survey.

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The Canning River, which flows north from the Brooks Range across the Arctic coastal plain into the Beaufort Sea, forms the northwestern border of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (Lisa Hupp / USFWS)

ANCHORAGE — Plans for seismic surveys to help find oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have fizzled due to a lack of protection for polar bears, according to a brief statement Saturday from the Department of the Interior.

The Kaktovik Inupiat Corp (KIC), the Alaska Native-owned company that applied for permission to conduct the survey, failed to do the required work to identify polar bear dens in the region that would be surveyed, Interior spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said in an emailed statement.

The likely demise of the seismic plan is the latest in a series of setbacks that have deflated the decades-long ambition to convert the refuge into an oil-producing frontier.

Alaska’s oil production has been waning since the late 1980s, when the state produced more than 2 million barrels of crude per day. Now its output is roughly 500,000 bpd.

Former President Donald Trump pushed tax legislation that passed in 2017 and would have allowed for drilling in ANWR, and the federal government held a lease sale in the last days of his presidency.

Identification of den sites was needed for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to grant KIC an incidental harassment authorization, a permit that would allow seismic operations near polar bears, Schwartz said.

“The company was advised today that their request is no longer actionable,” she said in her statement.

KIC had planned, through contractor SAExploration, to conduct seismic surveys on 352,416 acres within the refuge’s coastal plain. The company missed a Feb. 13 deadline to perform its aerial den-detection work, Schwartz said.

The Jan. 6 ANWR lease sale drew qualifying bids for only 11 tracts, most from an Alaska state agency that was participating as a backstop in case oil companies did not submit bids.

President Joseph Biden and Interior Secretary-designee Deb Haaland oppose oil development in the refuge.