State claims 20,000 acres on edge of ANWR

Map/Courtesy/Alaska Division of Oil & Gas • Illustration/Nadya Gilmore/AJOC

Alaska is laying claim to a sliver of what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service thinks is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge along the northwest boundary of the refuge.

The state is citing a defect in the federal agency’s interpretation of the refuge boundary. The Fish and Wildlife Service administers ANWR.

Gov. Sean Parnell said ownership of the land, which totals about 20,000 acres of onshore lands and 3,000 acres of tidal and submerged lands, by the state has important implications for oil and gas development on the eastern North Slope.

“Just a few miles to the west we are now seeing billions of dollars of investment in the Point Thomas gas condensate development,” Parnell said in a statement.

The state is arguing that the Fish and Wildlife Service incorrectly plotted the western boundary of refuge when it prepared maps. The legal boundary of the refuge is described as the Canning River but the maps provided by the federal agency put the boundary several miles to the west, near the Staines River.

The result of the error is the 20,000 acres of uplands, or onshore acreages, between the Staines and the Canning rivers being erroneously included within ANWR on Fish and Wildlife Service maps.

The error has caused confusion for the state, which holds periodic oil and gas lease sales on the North Slope and would like to see the matter clarified.

“If one attempts to map this description it becomes clear that the locations described are inconsistent and provide no identifiable boundary,” the state said in a briefing paper.

A letter sent by the Department of Natural Resources to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which has jurisdiction over the acreage if the Fish and Wildlife Service does not, asks BLM to give a priority conveyance of the lands to the state under provisions of the Alaska Statehood Act, which allows Alaska to select up to 103 million acres of federal lands.

“Our hope is that BLM will move quickly to convey the lands so we can offer them for leasing,” state Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Balash said.

Having done the research, which included field visits earlier this year, the state has also issued two oil and gas leases in the nearshore Beaufort Sea that were originally offered in a 2011 lease sale and bid on.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maps have also shown this acreage as within ANWR, and the award of the two leases was withheld pending more research by the state.

With information it now has, the state argues the Fish and Wildlife Service offshore boundary for ANWR is also incorrect, and the two leases were awarded to the two individuals who submitted bids in 2011, Andrew Bachner and Keith Forsgren. One lease, Tract 79 in the 2011 sale, covers 3,016 acres. The second, listed as Tract 80, covers 160 acres.

Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Crystal Leonetti said her agency has not seen the state’s letter and details of the state claims and could not comment on the matter.

“Our position is that the boundary of refuge has been consistent since the Arctic National Wildlife Range was formed in the 1950s, and became a refuge in 1980,” Leonetti said.

Commenting on the lease awards, DNR Commissioner Balash said, “I’m pleased we are now able to award these leases to the 2011 bidders and clarify the acreage that is available for oil and gas exploration in this highly prospective area.

“Our next step is to determine how the state’s assertion will affect existing leases on (other) tidal and submerged lands along the ANWR boundary.”

Elizabeth Bluemink, spokeswoman for the state DNR, said the state cannot lease the upland onshore lands until the boundary issue is settled.

The state’s new initiatives may be a way for Parnell, who is running for reelection in a tight race, to get in another jab at the Interior Department over ANWR.

The state has also proposed to fund a winter seismic program in the refuge and contends the language of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act, which created the refuge, requires an ongoing resource assessment in the coastal plain of ANWR, which Congress excluded from a wilderness designation because of its oil and gas potential.

Interior rejected the state’s application, saying the provision on ANILCA has expired, but the state is challenging that in court, arguing the plain reading of the law requires Interior to give the state a permit to do a state-funded seismic program.

The dispute over ANWR’s western boundary is not new but Parnell decided to press the issue anew after a state team visited the area this summer and did on-site surveys.

A past state selection of the acreage, based on the state’s interpretation of the boundary, was rejected by the BLM on the grounds that the lands were within the refuge.

It may take time to resolve the issue, Bluemink said.

“We don’t expect the Fish and Wildlife Service will roll over on this,” she said.

11/23/2016 - 3:10pm