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Vol. 18, No. 39 Week of September 29, 2013
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

Three strikes and out?

Fish and Wildlife director upholds rejection of state’s ANWR exploration plan

Wesley Loy

For Petroleum News

For the third time, federal officials have denied Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell’s bid to conduct oil and gas exploration on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The latest denial comes from Daniel Ashe, national director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who in a Sept. 20 letter upheld the Alaska regional director’s rejection of the state’s exploration plan.

The Parnell administration was seeking a federal permit for a four-year, 3-D seismic survey across the coastal plain.

Back in June, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejected a more expansive exploration proposal that included not only a seismic survey but exploratory drilling.

The latest rejection would appear to leave the Republican governor with only one option: sue the federal government.

Dueling interpretations

The coastal plain of ANWR is considered highly prospective for oil and gas, and opening the zone to industry activity long has been a top economic development goal for the state.

The coastal plain currently is closed to oil and gas activity without an OK from Congress.

The Parnell administration, however, believes exploration is allowable under federal law, specifically the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980.

Federal officials disagree with the state’s interpretation of ANILCA, and say any authorization for exploration expired long ago.

The two sides have been swapping highly detailed legal interpretations, with Ashe’s 10-page letter the latest shot.

His rejection drew praise from Cindy Shogan of the Alaska Wilderness League, a fervent ANWR protectionist.

The Obama administration has been clear that oil development in ANWR is “off the table,” Shogan said in a Sept. 23 press release.

“It is time for the state of Alaska to take no for an answer and move on,” she said.

‘Head in the tundra’

Dan Sullivan, who finished his tenure as the state’s natural resources commissioner on Sept. 24, said in an interview with Petroleum News the day before that he was disappointed to see Ashe’s rejection letter.

“Overall, we’re still reviewing it with the Department of Law and evaluating next steps,” Sullivan said.

The only existing seismic data on the coastal plain is outdated, and a new 3-D survey would provide a much clearer picture of what’s beneath the ground there, state officials say. They stress that the seismic survey could be done with almost no impact to the tundra or wildlife.

And Parnell has pledged to request at least $50 million from the Alaska Legislature to pay for the seismic work.

The Fish and Wildlife Service manages ANWR. Sullivan said federal land managers should want to learn more about what resources might exist subsurface.

“This continued head-in-the-tundra approach to resource development in Alaska is disappointing and disturbing,” he said.

He added: “We think there’s a lot of strange reading of federal law going on here.”

Sullivan, who previously served as the state’s attorney general, said the state’s push for ANWR exploration isn’t over.



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