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Alaska Touts Plan to Probe ANWR

The state of Alaska last week took the next step toward going it alone to find out how much oil and gas lies beneath the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) after an offer to partner with the federal government on the effort was rebuffed by the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI).

Gov. Sean Parnell in a Tuesday letter to DOI Secretary Sally Jewell offered the state's "formal exploration plan and special-use permit application under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act's (ANILCA) Section 1002(e). "We propose moving forward with gathering scientific information about oil and gas resources in the Coastal Plain (1002 Area) of" ANWR.

In May the state put up a plan to partner with the federal government on a seven-year plan that would include seismic surveys of the region, environmental studies and exploration drilling (see NGI, May 27). Parnell offered up to $50 million of state money for the activities, but the proposal was declined by Jewell in a June 28 letter.

"Alaska's second proposal would put the state in the lead under the provisions of ANILCA," Parnell told Jewell in his latest missive. "The state of Alaska has the technical and financial ability to conduct integrated and well-designed activities in the 1002 Area."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is developing its Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP) for ANWR, but the state maintains oil and gas resources in the region are being ignored. "The CCP does not have an alternative that examines the oil and gas potential of the 1002 Area," Parnell said in his letter.

The governor and Alaska Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan have been asking for months why the federal government wouldn't want to know how much potentially exploitable oil and gas lies in ANWR. Last Tuesday the two held a press briefing to discuss the latest proposal.

"We're essentially saying to the federal government, 'Let's find out what's there,'" Sullivan said. "'Why wouldn't you want to know if you can have such a limited impact'" in conducting an assessment.

"Field activities conducted under this exploration plan will only occur during the winter so that the tundra is protected," the plan said. "The modern tracked vehicles and travel methods that will be used are able to pass over well-protected, snow-covered tundra with hardly a trace. The survey crew will be present in a given area for a very limited time, typically one or two days. Necessary cables and seismic receivers will be laid out for the period needed to record data when vibration sources pass by, and will then be picked up and moved to the next area, which will limit the impact to area wildlife. Wildlife is less abundant during the winter season, which will further reduce their interaction with seismic crews."

According to the plan, "...ANILCA explicitly authorizes exploration in the 1002 Area. One of the statute's congressionally defined purposes is to 'authorize exploratory activity within the coastal plain in a manner that avoids significant adverse effects on the fish and wildlife and other resources.' To put this purpose into effect, the statute allows the submission of an exploration plan 'by any person' and instructs the Secretary of the Interior...to accept and review these exploration plans."

The law allows Jewell 120 days to respond to the proposal, Sullivan said. Neither he nor the governor were willing to speculate what the state's next step might be should the plan be rejected by DOI as the department's response could "take a multitude of forms."

The 1002 Area is estimated to contain billions of barrels of technically recoverable oil, in addition to several trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to the plan. "Since the passage of ANILCA in 1980, the final authority to allow oil and gas development in ANWR has resided with the U.S. Congress," it said. "However, the federal government has not taken the lead on fully exploring the resource potential of the 1002 Area, which Congress has already authorized."

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