Vol. 25, No.33 Week of August 16, 2020
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

Enigma enshrouds ANWR

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Federal lease sale plans a mystery; IBLA case assigned to administrative judge

Steve Sutherlin

Petroleum News

When it comes to the interests of the state of Alaska regarding the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, questions seem recently to outnumber answers.

The question at the top of the list, is: When will the first of the two congressionally mandated federal oil and gas lease sales in the 1002 area of the refuge take place?

When the U.S. Bureau of Land Management released its Coastal Plain Oil and Gas Leasing Program Final Environmental Impact Statement Sept. 12, 2019, optimistic projections held that the sale would happen before the end of the year.

Chad Padgett, Alaska director of the Bureau of Land Management said at a press conference on the day of the EIS release that BLM’s goal was to hold a lease sale before the end of 2019.

In July 2019, Joe Balash - then U.S. Department of the Interior assistant secretary, Land and Minerals Management - told Petroleum News that the lease sale for ANWR 1002 area was tentatively scheduled for December.

“Unless there’s a surprise, we should be able to publish the final EIS in early September,” he said in response to a query from PN. “The process that will follow - Record of Decision, Expression of Interest, Notice of Sale - should all lead to a sale date in December.”

Balash resigned his Interior position effective Aug. 30 of 2019, however, to take a job in Alaska as senior vice president of external affairs for Oil Search, the company currently pursuing the massive Nanushuk oil discovery and Pikka development on the North Slope.

Perhaps the sale will take place quite soon, in 2020. In a Jan. 14 Washington Post story, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the Trump administration is trying to make its leasing plan legally ironclad, while completing a lease sale before the 2020 election.

Even if the 2020 goal is missed, there is time to comply with the congressional mandate.

House Resolution 1, the act finalized by Congress in late 2017 which opened the 1002 area to leasing calls for two areawide lease sales to occur. President Trump signed the bill into law that year, on Dec. 22.

The initial sale under the act must occur not later than 4 years after the date of enactment, by December 2021, and the second sale not later than 7 years after enactment.

Each sale must encompass at least 400,000 acres, including areas with the highest potential for hydrocarbon discoveries.

But before a lease sale can be scheduled, BLM must issue a record of decision on the final EIS, a process that normally takes just a few months at most. At this point, it appears that record of decision will take a year, or more.

There is no official word on when the record of decision will be released, BLM Alaska Communications Director Lesli J. Ellis-Wouters told Petroleum News Aug. 12.

“It is in the works, but we haven’t received a final go-ahead; we’re just waiting,” she said.

Interminable border dispute

Meanwhile, a 55-year-old dispute between the U.S. Department of the Interior and the state of Alaska over the ANWR border drags on.

It is currently before the Interior Board of Land Appeals.

There may, however, be some movement.

The board has not decided the appeals, Rachel Levin, communications lead at Interior’s Office of Policy, Management and Budget told Petroleum News in an Aug. 13 email.

As to when the case will be decided, she said: “The case is currently assigned to a lead administrative judge and will be resolved as promptly as possible.”

A tug of war arose in 1965 over a 19,322-acre sliver between the Canning and Staines rivers which was yanked from state land selections by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service remapping that alleged the land should be included in the 19,286,722-acre refuge.

The state has never agreed with USFWS, and it has tried to secure the lands for decades. It made a request for priority conveyance of the acreage in 2014, but Interior refused to transfer the lands and the state filed an appeal with the Interior Board of Land Appeals.

No decision on the appeal has been issued, Marty Parsons, director of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Mining, Land and Water, told Petroleum News Aug. 11.

“Status Quo, no movement on IBLA’s part,” he said in answer to an emailed query.

IBLA has no time limit to act.

“There is no time limit for the Board to issue a decision on land boundary disputes,” Interior’s Levin told Petroleum News in a Jan. 24 email.

The acreage - highly prospective for oil and gas - is a high priority area for the state, Parsons told Petroleum News in January 2019.

Parsons said in 2018 that if the agency’s effort to resolve the dispute was not successful, the next step would be federal court.

ANWR 3D seismic shoot delayed

A 3D seismic survey proposed to be shot in the ANWR 1002 area still has no start date set in stone.

Seismic contractor SAExploration had planned to begin its program as early as December 2020 and finish in the spring of 2021.

“The exploration application was put on hold pending an updated plan of operations from the proponent,” Ellis-Wouters told Petroleum News Aug. 11 in an email.

Partners SAExploration, Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and Kaktovik Inupiat Corp. are behind the seismic program, referred to as the Marsh Creek 3-D survey. It was to encompass the entire 1002 area, some 2,600 square miles.

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