Draft EIS released for ANWR lease sale
Alaskans got their first look at what oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge might look like exactly one year to the day after Congress ordered the Trump administration to start leasing portions of its coastal plain.
On Dec. 20 the Bureau of Land Management released the draft version of the environmental impact statement that will inform what areas of the roughly 1.5 million-acre coastal plain are open to oil and gas leasing and what other sideboards that should be put on oil exploration in the area.
The ANWR rider to the Tax Cut and Jobs Act passed last December 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.
The Alaska Native village corporation Kaktovik Inupiat Corp. also owns about 92,000 acres around the coastal village of Kaktovik within the refuge, land that would also be open to development.
The draft EIS offers three leasing scenarios with varying limitations on available acreage and activity timing intended to account for wildlife migrations and local subsistence activities.
The 756-page, two-volume document also includes a “no action” alternative — a part of all environmental impact statements — as a baseline to compare other options against but Assistant Interior Secretary Joe Balash noted in a call with reporters the no action option won’t be chosen because the law mandates lease sales be held.
Balash stressed that the input of residents from villages that use the refuge played a big role in how the leasing alternatives were formed, including input from Gwich’in Tribe members who rely on the Porcupine caribou herd as a primary food source and strongly oppose the industry activity.
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.
Exactly how long it will take to finalize the coastal plain EIS is unclear; however, Interior leaders expect to hold the first lease sale sometime in 2019. A 45-day public comment period on the draft is scheduled to commence Dec. 28 when the document is published in the Federal Register.
The members of Alaska’s congressional delegation and Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy praised BLM’s work in formal statements.
Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan said they appreciate the diligence with which the agency built the first draft of the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program EIS.
“I am particularly pleased to see the serious and necessary considerations for the Porcupine caribou that migrate through the region, as well as the abundant level of stakeholder input — including from the Alaska Natives in the area, the vast majority of whom support responsible drilling in the 1002 (coastal plain),” Sullivan said. “This draft EIS brings us that much closer to unleashing America’s energy potential, filling up the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, boosting our economy, and providing good jobs for Alaskans, all while protecting the ecosystem in ANWR’s 1002 as we’ve done on the rest of Alaska’s North Slope for over 40 years.”
The coastal plain has also been dubbed the “1002 area” for Section 1002 of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which carved out the potential for industry development in the otherwise off-limits 19 million-acre refuge.
Dunleavy said the document “is a significant milestone in Alaska’s long journey to responsibly explore and develop the 1002 area in ANWR. The potential oil discovered will spur new jobs and investments for generations to come, extending the life of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.”
The least restrictive to development, Alternative B would open the entire 1.5 million acres to leasing. Industry activity restrictions during the Porcupine herd’s May-June calving season would apply to about 585,000 acres mostly in the eastern portion of the coastal plain.
Another 360,000 acres — mostly along the coast and major river corridors — would be leasable but with a “no surface occupancy” stipulation prohibiting construction of permanent facilities there. Activity restrictions along the rivers and coast are a theme in all the leasing scenarios. The remaining 618,000 acres would be open to leasing under the program’s general conditions.
The Central Arctic caribou typically migrates into the western half of the coastal plain in July and August but calving takes place mostly on state land just to the west of the refuge, according to the EIS.
Alternative C would also open the entirety of the coastal plain for leasing but place the no surface occupancy restriction over more than 930,000 acres including the caribou calving area and major river corridors. Timing limitations on industrial activity would be put on another 317,000 acres and about 314,000 acres would be open with general conditions.
Finally, Alternative D would place the most restrictions on development activity in order to protect biological and ecological resources, the EIS states. A little more than 1 million acres would be available for leasing; however, permanent oil and gas facilities would be prohibited over 708,000 acres and another 124,000 acres would have other use restrictions. Sub-options to Alternative D would have the remaining roughly 204,000 acres either be open with general conditions or open with timing limitations.
Approximately 530,000 acres of primarily Porcupine herd calving grounds would be off-limits to leasing under Alternative D.
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. The USGS additionally estimated there is a 5 percent probability the area holds nearly 12 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil, which says noting of the economics of extracting it.
SAExploration Inc. has a 3-D seismic survey plan for the coastal plain before Interior officials, but whether or not the plan will be approved in time for work this winter is up in the air. Balash said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing the seismic plan for how the work could impact denning polar bears.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].