For decades, the remote coastal plain of the Arctic refuge in northeastern Alaska was closed off to fossil-fuel extraction. But before companies can begin to drill for oil there, they need to know where it is. So two Alaska Native corporations and a small oil services firm applied to do extensive seismic testing there this coming winter in order to map underground reserves of petroleum.
The application describes how special trucks weighing as much as 90,000 pounds would pound the ground with large, metal plates, sending vibrations through the earth. By recording how the sound waves reflect off underground rock formations, the researchers can create a three-dimensional map of the oil and gas.
Career staff at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a blistering response to the idea earlier this year. In an 18-page review of the application, the career staff there say the company did not provide studies about the effects of that work on the wildlife in the refuge, writing "there is no documentation of environmental effects, whether positive or adverse." Environmentalists worry that the thumping from seismic testing may disturb calving caribou, migrating birds and denning polar bears there.
But Joe Balash, the Interior Department's assistant secretary for land and minerals management, told The Post in an interview on Monday that seismic testers have become much better at reducing the footprint they leave behind after their work.
"Some of the impacts that we still see today from the 1960s, those are not the impacts you will see today," Balash said.
For example, decade-old scars of vehicle tracks from past testing are still visible in the tundra in the refuge. Balash said today's softer tires and tracks will not tear into the ground like that.
But many environmentalists balk at the idea of developing at all one of the few still-unspoiled stretches of wilderness in the United States.
“It's landscape of the level of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon,” said Lois Epstein, Arctic program director for the Wilderness Society. “Treasured and unique and near- pristine.” She added that after development, the coastal plain of the Arctic refuge “will no longer look like the pristine landscape it is now.”
The Bureau of Land Management, a division of Interior responsible for managing the refuge's subsurface resources, posted the application on its website this month, indicating it will go forward with the plan despite the objections of career staff at Fish and Wildlife. The Wilderness Society used software to compare the original application with the one recently posted to BLM's website, and discovered they were identical.
The Interior Department is currently developing an environmental assessment of seismic testing in the Arctic refuge to determine if the impacts will be significant and if a broader review is warranted.
"Depending on what we conclude from that, we will outline what our plan is for the scope of the review and public comment," Balash said, adding that the department will decide by the end of the week whether it will take public comment on the environmental assessment.
Whether there would be a public comment period for the environmental assessment has been a sticking point for environmental groups. The Wilderness Society and Defenders of Wildlife said they received conflicting information about whether they and other members of the public would be able to formally weigh in on the assessment.
BLM's Alaska office told the local media in July there would be a 30-day comment period for an environmental assessment of the seismic plan. “That was the working understanding,” said Patrick Lavin, senior Alaska representative for the Defenders of Wildlife.
But in early August, the agency told environmental groups during a meeting that BLM could not say yet whether there would be a comment period for the assessment.
SAExploration, the Houston-based oil services company that submitted the seismic testing plan to BLM, already has said it will avoid known polar bear dens. The seismic permit application was filed by a consortium of SAExploration and two Alaska Native corporations, the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and the Kaktovik Inupiat Corp.
But another concern among Fish and Wildlife staff and non-governmental environmental groups is that heavy seismic equipment is usually used atop ground packed with snow. The wildlife agency had noted some areas of the Arctic refuge have little to no snow even in winter.
Last year President Trump and Republicans in Congress, backed by the oil and gas industry, opened the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, also called the 1002 area, to drilling as part of the GOP's tax bill. The entire refuge is about 19 million acres.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates the coastal plain holds between 5.7 and 16 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil reserves. But that analysis relied on seismic data from the 1980s, so the actual figure may be higher.
“My expectation is that if we do our work right at the department,” Balash said during a speech this month, “there are going to be some eye-popping numbers that show up.”
Balash added during the speech that he hopes BLM holds a lease sale for the Arctic refuge “sometime next year.” Congress directed the agency to conduct two such sales, each covering 400,000 acres, within the next decade. Elected officials in Alaska are pushing hard to lease portions of the refuge before a Democrat potentially wins back the White House in 2020.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said The Post interviewed Joe Balash on Tuesday. The interview happened on Monday.
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