Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – Oil and Gas Development

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Why It Matters

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) consists of more than 19 million acres of wilderness in northeastern Alaska. The refuge includes some of the most pristine, untouched lands and waters within the United States. It has no roads, marked trails, or campgrounds, though it is open to recreational use, such as hunting and fishing. ANWR is home to diverse wildlife, including over 40 mammals and over 200 bird species. It is a critical area for porcupine caribou, as thousands of porcupine caribou migrate through ANWR to reach appropriate calving locations each year.

Additionally, female polar bears build their dens and give birth on ANWR’s Coastal Plain, the 1.5 million acres of land along the Beaufort Sea. The polar bears that come to the Coastal Plain are part of the Southern Beaufort Sea population of polar bears, which historically built their dens on sea ice. As sea ice continues to thin, the maternal polar bears have increasingly built their dens on land. According to the most recent research, around 900 Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears still exist in the world, which represents a significant decline in their population numbers over the past two decades.

While nearly 80% of ANWR is protected from oil and gas development under a 1980 law passed by Congress, the 1.5 million acres of the Coastal Plain is not. The 1980 law authorized a survey of the Coastal Plain for potential oil and gas development. The initial assessment was finalized in 1987. For the succeeding 30 years, Congress did not authorize any subsequent oil and gas exploration, and the Coastal Plain maintained its natural wilderness, undisturbed by the harmful activity and pollution that oil leasing could bring. In 1998, the United States Geological Survey estimated that there were 4.3 to 11.8 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil in the Coastal Plain. Because no oil and gas exploration has occurred since the 1980s, there is significant uncertainty about the size of oil reserves in ANWR.

However, in 2017, Congress and the Trump administration reversed course and established an oil and gas leasing program on the Coastal Plain. The Department of Interior (DOI) is now required to conduct two lease sales within the next seven years. Without stringent environmental safeguards and oversight, this leasing program could be detrimental to the Coastal Plain and the species that depend on the fragile wilderness for survival.

Current Status

On December 22, 2017, President Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. Section 20001 of the Act authorized oil and gas exploration, leasing, development, and production on ANWR’s Coastal Plain. The Act requires the Secretary of DOI to hold two oil and gas lease sales within the next 7 years and allows DOI to authorize up to 2,000 surface acres of the Coastal Plain for production and support facilities by the lease holders.

On April 20, 2018, The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a division of DOI, published a Notice of Intent to Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program. The Environmental Impact Statement is a required step that the agency must take before any major action that will result in environmental consequences. Public comments were due on June 19, 2018. BLM is currently developing the draft Environmental Impact Statement.

On July 18, 2018, BLM released a seven-page document describing a plan by SAExploration, Inc. (SAE) for seismic testing across the entire Coastal Plain based on SAE’s application for seismic survey permits. Seismic Testing uses large vibrations to send seismic waves into the ground, which will allow the company to identify potential oil and gas reserves beneath the Coastal Plain’s tundra. SAE’s estimated start date is December 10, 2018.

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History 

On December 6, 1960, The Department of the Interior (DOI) designated 9.8 million acres of wilderness in northeastern Alaska as the Arctic National Wildlife Range. Pursuant to the order, DOI was tasked with managing the land “for the purpose of preserving unique wildlife, wilderness, and recreational values….”

On December 2, 1980, Congress enacted the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA). The primary purpose of ANILCA was to preserve the wilderness of over 100 million acres of Alaskan land. As part of the legislation, Congress renamed the range the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and added over 9 million acres of land to ANWR. However, Section 1002 of ANILCA authorized oil and gas exploratory activity in the 1.5 million-acre area of ANWR known as the Coastal Plain. Section 1002 also ordered the Secretary of DOI to conduct a study of the coastal plain as well as the potential impact of oil and gas development and production in the area. Meanwhile, Section 1003 of ANILCA established a prohibition on the leasing, development, and production of oil and gas from ANWR, unless authorized by an Act of Congress.

In the winters of 1984 and 1985, as part of the exploration activity authorized under ANILCA, seismic testing was conducted throughout the refuge, leaving around 2,500 miles of trail destruction in the tundra. Though 90% of the affected tundra recovered within 10 years, around 5% of the exploration trails were still unrecovered in 2009.

In April 1987, DOI completed and published the Coastal Plain Resource Assessment for ANWR. The report analyzed the likely environmental impacts of five management options for the coastal plain. The Secretary of DOI recommended that Congress open the entire Coastal Plain to oil and gas exploration, assuming that only a small portion of the area would ever be leased and/or developed. The report also included an Environmental Impact Statement. Congress continued to study the area but did not open the Coastal Plain to leasing for over 3 decades.

On January 27, 2015, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the publication of a Revised Comprehensive Conservation Plan and Final Environmental Impact Statement for ANWR. The plan considered five management alternatives and recommended that Congress designate around 12 million acres in ANWR as Wilderness Study Areas, including the Coastal Plain. This would allow the Bureau of Land Management to implement policies to protect those areas’ natural conditions until Congress decides to designate them as wilderness areas.

Alaska Native communities were split in their reaction to the Comprehensive Conservation Plan. The Gwich’in community support the Plan for its ability to protect wildlife and sacred lands within ANWR, whereas the Iñupiat people do not want to restrict economic opportunities that could significantly benefit their community.

On April 3, 2015, the Regional Director for DOI in Alaska signed the Record of Decision to adopt the Comprehensive Conservation Plan’s recommendations. However, without an authorizing statute from Congress, DOI could not unilaterally begin managing the targeted areas as Wilderness Study Areas. Instead, DOI continued to manage the Coastal Plan under Minimal Management standards. These standards are intended to maintain the existing conditions of the area but are not as permanent of a protection as the Wilderness Study Area standards.

Later on April 3, 2015, President Obama sent a letter to Congressional leaders urging Congress to act, but Congress did not pass the legislation needed to more permanently protect the 12 million acres.

Trump Era

On December 22, 2017, President Trump signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Bill Act of 2017. Section 20001 of the Act authorized oil and gas exploration, leasing, development, and production in the Coastal Plain. The Act ordered the Secretary of the Interior to establish an oil and gas plan for the Coastal Plain and required that two lease sales occur within ten years of the passage of the Act. One lease sale, for an area of at least 400,000 acres, must occur within 4 years of the passage of the act, or before December 21, 2021. The second lease sale must occur within 7 years, or before December 21, 2024.

On April 20, 2018, The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) published a Notice of Intent to Prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for the Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program. The Environmental Impact Statement is an initial step that the agency must take. The notice began the “scoping process,” which includes a request for public comment on the scope of issues, impacts, and potential alternatives that BLM should consider when developing the Environmental Impact Statement. In evaluating the environmental consequences of the proposed leasing program, BLM must assess alternative plans for implementation of the program. For instance, the Environmental Impact Statement may include certain areas that would result in less damage from oil production or terms and conditions for leases that will minimize the damage of oil and gas development and production. However, BLM is not required to choose the least harmful alternative upon completion of the Environmental Impact Statement. BLM held public hearings across Alaska as part of the process. Comments were due on June 19, 2018.

BLM is currently considering preliminary alternatives to include in the draft Environmental Impact Statement. Once the draft Environmental Impact Statement is finalized, BLM will publish a notice in the Federal Register and will request public comments on the draft.

On July 18, 2018, BLM released a seven-page document describing a plan by SAExploration, Inc. (SAE) for seismic testing across the entire Coastal Plain (2,600 square miles). The plan mentions but does not elaborate on environmental or cultural risks implicated by the seismic testing. According to the plan, SAE applied for an “incidental take authorization” for the work that will occur near polar bear habitats. Under the Marine Mammals Protection Act, an “incidental take authorization” allows the authorized party to unintentionally “take” – meaning “harass, hunt, capture, or kill” – a small number of the protected species. In general, these licenses are used to authorize activities that may alter the polar bears’ habits.

On August 6, 2018, BLM made publicly available SAE’s application for permits to conduct a winter seismic survey. This application was submitted earlier in the summer and outlines the corporation’s plan to conduct seismic testing in the Coastal Plain. SAE intends to use 3-D seismic testing. This method, which uses large vibrations to send seismic waves into the ground, will allow the company to identify potential oil and gas reserves beneath the Coastal Plain’s tundra. SAE’s estimated start date is December 10, 2018. According to the application, the seismic testing will continue throughout the winter and could continue again next winter if it cannot be completed during the 2018/2019 season. However, BLM will likely need to conduct an environmental review of the plan for seismic testing which could delay the process.


Thank you to Harvard student Laura Bloomer, JD/MPP 2019 for her assistance with this rule.

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