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Drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to get fast review

A porcupine caribou herd on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
A porcupine caribou herd on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Associated Press)
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The Interior Department has commissioned an expedited environmental review of the impact of leasing part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas drilling, according to a document released under the Freedom of Information Act.

The nearly $1.7 million contract that Interior signed April 8 with Colorado-based Environmental Management and Planning Solutions, obtained by the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, shows how rapidly the Trump administration is moving ahead with its plans to open up the refuge’s coastal plain to energy exploration.

It outlines a schedule ending with a lease sale notice to be issued next summer. That gives the firm three months to complete a scoping report, which will set the terms of how federal officials will gauge the impact of energy development in the refuge. The report must reflect the input of local tribes and the hundreds of thousands of public comments that have been submitted.

Congress passed tax legislation in December directing Interior to conduct two lease sales by December 2024, each covering 400,000 acres, in the refuge’s coastal plain. Many environmentalists and scientists have sought to block energy exploration within the nearly 19 million-acre refuge on the grounds that it would disturb denning polar bears, disrupt a major migration corridor for waterfowl and porcupine caribou, and damage wilderness habitat that has enjoyed federal protection for decades.

In an interview Monday, Alaska Natural Resources Commissioner Andrew T. Mack said that state officials realize Interior has laid out a “compressed” schedule and that they are devoting resources to ensure the assessment is done right.

“We looked at the schedule, and we felt we could put forth the resources to assist,” Mack said. “We’re not going to shy away from saying there will be impacts. And we need to figure out ways to mitigate those impacts.”

Some former Interior officials, along with several environmentalists, questioned whether the federal government could conduct an adequate environmental-impact statement under such tight time constraints.

Geoffrey Haskett, who served as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s regional director between 2009 and 2016, said in an interview that such reviews typically take two to three years.

“The idea of imposing an arbitrary deadline like this is just horrific to me,” said Haskett, who is now president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association. “I think they’re going to make mistakes because they’re moving so fast. They’re certainly not going to get much input on this.”

Neither Environmental Management and Planning Solutions nor the Interior Department responded to requests for comment.

The contract indicates that the firm will rely largely on existing information about the area rather than conduct new surveys. Mack noted that state and federal officials have done multiple environmental assessments of nearby areas over the past two decades, which can be incorporated into the current review.

“There’s a body of information that has been developed through recent [environmental-impact statements] that can serve as a baseline for what we’re doing now,” he said.

The Alaska Oil and Gas Association, which represents the companies working on the North Slope and Cook Inlet, has been urging the federal government to take whatever time it needs.

“There are some who say it should take 14 years to read all the comments because they don’t want to see a lease sale anyway,” said Kara Moriarty, president of the association. “And there are others who think they can get the job done in two months, six months, eight months.”

Moriarty said, “We want this to be a thorough process because we know it’s going to be challenged in court.”

The Interior Department has set a length limit of 150 pages on the environmental-impact statement to be written by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), although the agency is supposed to respond to all comments. Lois Epstein, Arctic program director for the Wilderness Society, said that would be difficult given that her group alone submitted a 150-page comment letter to the department.

The tax legislation that authorized drilling in the iconic refuge imposed several constraints on the process, which has created some confusion.

Normally an agency doing an environmental-impact statement would have the option of recommending no action, but that is not an option under the legislation. Mack said that makes the process “a little different,” and added it is unclear how federal officials will address that issue.

Congress put the BLM in charge of the process, and the contract makes clear that the Fish and Wildlife Service — which is mentioned just three times in the document — does not have decision-making authority.

“The methodology for the impacts analysis must be agreed to by the BLM staff and the final analysis will be made in consultation with BLM staff,” the contract says.

Fish and Wildlife is responsible for managing the surface of the refuge — including its flora and fauna — while the BLM controls the subsurface. Epstein said these “two different sets of mandates” should be given equal weight.

The BLM held a three-day closed meeting last week on the environmental review with other government agencies, including officials from Mack’s office, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, the North Slope Borough and several Alaska Native tribes. There have been seven public meetings on the scoping process this summer, all but one of which were held in Alaska.

SAExploration, whose initial plan for exploratory seismic work in the refuge was sharply criticized by the Fish and Wildlife Service, is expected to submit a revised plan and may have done so already. Environmental groups said the seismic work would disturb the habitat.

Mack, however, said that “seismic has proven in Alaska to be valuable tool, an environmental tool.” He said seismic results help exploration crews focus on “a more limited program.”

Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said the provisions suggest that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has “set this up as a rubber-stamp environmental review. . . . For $1.7 million, taxpayers should be getting a serious assessment of the dangers and damage that will be done by drilling the Arctic refuge, not a kangaroo court.”

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