State applies for seismic exploration permit in ANWR coastal plain

Gov. Sean Parnell said Tuesday the state will apply for a federal permit to do a winter seismic program in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and said federal law requires that Interior Secretary Sally Jewell grant the permit if the proposal complies with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services rules.

The seismic exploration program would be in the “1002” coastal plain area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Parnell said Tuesday in a press conference.

The state has pressed the federal government for years to allow coastal sections of the wildlife refuge to be explored. Federal and state geologists have said the area is prospective for major discoveries for several years.

Congress approved the exploration once, but the bill was vetoed by former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat. Other efforts to get a bill through the U.S. Senate failed several times, although the House has given approval at least 12 times. Conservation groups have mounted vigorous campaigns to keep the area closed to drilling.

Parnell said the Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act allows for certain exploration activities that meet U.S. Fish and Wildlife regulations. In a letter send to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell June 9 Parnell said the state would pick up the $50 million estimated cost of the first year of a three-year, three-dimensional seismic program in the 1.2 million acres of the 1002 area.

In 1980, Congress set aside the coastal area of ANWR under Section 1002 of the act for study of its oil and gas potential. Eight million acres of ANWR, which totals 19 million acres, was designated as wilderness, but not the 1002 coastal area.

Parnell said Section 1002(e) of ANICLA is clear that the Secretary shall issue a special use permit allowing seismic if the requirements of regulations are met. No drilling is included in the state plan.

“When presented with an exploration plan and permit application, ANILCA requires the Secretary of the Interior to publish the plan in the Federal Register, hold a public hearing in Alaska and, if the plan is consistent with applicable law, to approve the plan within 120 days of its filing,” Parnell said. “The clock is now ticking.”

Once the data is gathered the state will make it public, State Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan said at the press conference. Data from a 2-D industry seismic program done in 1980s is public but the results of the only exploration well drilled in ANWR, the KIC No. 1 well drilled by BP and Chevron in 1985 on subsurface land owned by local Native corporations, are still confidential.

Interior officials were briefed several weeks ago on the proposal and in a letter sent to Parnell in late June, Jewell said the department opposes the plan and that the permission in section 1002(e) has expired. Sullivan said there in nothing in the existing statute that terminates the section, and that current fish and wildlife service regulations allow such activities if requirements are met.

Parnell said the state’s proposal is prompted by a pending Department of the Interior management plan for ANWR that includes no provision for assessing the oil and gas potential of the 1002 area.

“It’s critical the American people know the potential of this area for oil and gas to be able to weigh that again the value of fish and wildlife resources on the surface,” Parnell said.

An industry-sponsored 2-D seismic program was conducted in the 1002 area in the 1980s, but the 3-D seismic program now proposed would use modern technology to provide a much more detailed and sophisticated look at potential hydrocarbon accumulations, Sullivan said.

“Why wouldn’t the federal government want to know the value of these resources? The intent of ANILCA is for a continuing assessment of all the values, surface and subsurface, so why not?” Sullivan said.

Parnell said the state’s $50 million would cover only the first year of the three-year program but that he may seek additional funds from the Legislature for the second and third years if other funding, such as from industry, does not materialize.

The first year of winter seismic would be in the western part of the 1002 area and would cover the Marsh Creek area. This area is believed to have the greatest potential and is also close to existing industry infrastructure in the Point Thomson area, on state lands just to the west, state petroleum geologist Paul Decker said. If the program continues, the second winter of seismic work would cover the Hula Hula River area generally further east. The third year would focus on areas of the 1002 area to the south, Decker said.

Parnell did not say whether the state would go to court if Jewell rejects the state’s permit application.

“Her response could take many forms, so we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said.

07/09/2013 - 7:57am