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Vol. 18, No. 31 Week of August 04, 2013
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

Another ANWR denial

Federal officials reject Alaska governor’s latest plan to explore coastal plain

Wesley Loy

For Petroleum News

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell’s open-ANWR strategy isn’t working, at least not so far.

The Obama administration has again turned back a Parnell proposal to conduct exploratory activity on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Republican governor had submitted, on July 9, an application to the Interior Department for a “special use permit” allowing the state to conduct 3-D seismic surveys across the coastal plain from 2014 to 2017.

On July 26, the governor’s office released a July 23 rejection letter from Geoffrey Haskett, Alaska regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages ANWR.

The letter cited statutory and regulatory bars to exploration.

It’s the second time the administration has said “no” to Parnell on ANWR exploration. In June, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejected a broader proposal from Parnell to conduct a seven-year seismic and exploratory drilling program on the coastal plain.

Authorization expired, feds say

Parnell, along with most of Alaska’s elected officials, see the coastal plain as another potential oil boom for the state.

But the area remains closed to oil development without congressional approval.

Parnell and his natural resources commissioner, Dan Sullivan, submitted their latest exploration plan under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980, Section 1002, which they believe authorizes exploratory activity.

Parnell and Sullivan say advanced 3-D seismic surveys are needed to update inferior 2-D data acquired in the 1980s. Fresh data would better define ANWR’s probable oil and gas riches, they argue.

They say the surveys could be done in winter with virtually no impact on the tundra or wildlife.

Parnell pledged to seek at least $50 million during the next Alaska legislative session to pay for the work.

But federal officials contend any ANILCA authorization for exploratory activity expired long ago. Thus, the state’s seismic exploration plan was submitted “years too late,” Haskett wrote.

Consequently, the state’s exploration plan will not be published in the Federal Register, and no public hearing on the plan will be held, Haskett wrote, steps the governor said ANILCA required.

Haskett enclosed with his letter a Jan. 18, 2001, legal memorandum from the Interior Department solicitor analyzing whether oil and gas activity was allowed or prohibited on the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain.

The memo concluded that “the better reading” of Section 1002 was that authorization for exploratory activity expired in April 1987, when the Interior Department submitted a resource assessment report to Congress.

State to request reconsideration

“I am disappointed — the federal government chose to rely on an inaccurate interpretation of ANILCA,” Parnell said in a July 26 press release.

Parnell contended the legal memo actually confirms the state’s position that ANILCA Section 1002 sets no expiration date.

The memo acknowledges that “nowhere in the section is there any express statement of expiration.”

However, the solicitor said his analysis of the section, along with the legislative history and the Interior Department’s implementation of the law, all lead to the conclusion that “it was a time-limited authorization for exploratory activities in the coastal plain.”

Parnell said the state will ask the national director of the Fish and Wildlife Service to reconsider Haskett’s disapproval.

Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, hailed the rejection of Parnell’s latest exploration plan.

“How many times and how many ways does the administration have to say ‘no’ before Governor Parnell gets it?” she said in a press release. “The administration has been clear — the Arctic Refuge is ‘off the table.’ It is time for the state of Alaska to stop its fruitless push to drill in the Arctic Refuge. Seismic activity in the Arctic Refuge is prohibited without an act of Congress, and a policy that the administration firmly opposes.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service is developing a new management plan for ANWR, and some of the alternatives under consideration include recommending the coastal plain for wilderness designation. Congress would have to OK any new wilderness. Such a designation would effectively bar oil development permanently.

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