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FAIRBANKS, Alaska -- The biggest untapped onshore trove of oil in North America is believed to lie beneath the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain along the Beaufort Sea.

For more than a generation, opposition to drilling has left the refuge largely unscathed, but now President Donald Trump's administration, working with Republicans in Congress and an influential and wealthy Alaska Native corporation, is clearing the way for oil exploration along the coast.

Decades of protections are unwinding as Republicans move to lock in drilling opportunities before the 2020 presidential election, according to interviews with over three dozen people and a review of internal government deliberations and federal documents.

To that end, the Trump administration is on pace to finish an environmental impact assessment in half the usual time. An even shorter evaluation of the consequences of seismic testing is nearing completion. Within months, trucks weighing up to 90,000 pounds could be conducting the tests across the tundra as they try to pinpoint oil reserves.

The fate of the refuge's coastal plain is in the hands of Ryan Zinke, the Interior secretary, who has appointed top deputies with deep professional and political ties to Alaska to oversee its development.

Congressional approval to open the area to oil exploration was inserted in tax overhaul legislation last December, and by next year, the Interior Department expects to begin selling the first drilling leases.

The hurried timeline has created friction, with some specialists in the federal government concerned that environmental risks are being played down or ignored. And many outside scientists and environmentalists share the concerns, warning that plans for seismic testing and eventual drilling could harass, injure or kill polar bears and other wildlife.

"It seems as though the administration is in a headlong rush to put the drill bit into the coastal plain," said David Hayes, a deputy Interior secretary under President Barack Obama and President Bill Clinton. "Given the virgin territory of the refuge, with the unique wildlife dependency issues, I don't know how you do this in an artificially fast and truncated fashion."

Zinke's Alaska-friendly appointees, who have long pushed for oil exploration in the coastal plain, say the fears are overstated. They point out that years ago, Congress left open the eventual possibility of allowing development there. Exploration is in the best interest of Alaskans, they say.

"I feel like there is a lot of expectations, hopes and dreams from people who I know and love that are riding on this," said Joe Balash, one of the appointees, who has worked in Alaskan political circles for two decades and now oversees the Bureau of Land Management.

An Alaska Native company, Arctic Slope Regional Corp., has been a major force behind the push and stands to enjoy a windfall if drilling proceeds.

Known as ASRC, it is among 13 regional businesses created in the 1970s to foster economic development among Alaska's indigenous population. It has myriad financial interests in the state's oil-rich North Slope region, which includes the refuge's coastal plain and Prudhoe Bay, home to one of the largest oil fields in North America. And it has been a key financial backer of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who has been the drilling plan's biggest champion in Congress.

Many Alaska Natives on the North Slope -- including Inupiat who live in Kaktovik, the village inside the refuge -- support oil development. But another group that lives south of the refuge, the Gwich'in, fears oil development would disturb the migration of porcupine caribou, animals it has hunted for centuries and still relies on for much of its food.

Murkowski declined to comment, as did Alaska's other elected representatives in Washington. Zinke also declined to comment. But he told a Senate committee in March that he was "very bullish on the Arctic."

In 1980, when Congress voted to conserve much of the federal land in Alaska, drilling advocates pushed for oil and gas development on the coastal plain. Then, as now, the move was supported by many Alaskans, who generally favor oil development, in part because some of the revenue is returned to them in the form of an annual dividend.

The advocates were unsuccessful but had an opening: The 1980 bill allowed Congress to authorize oil and gas development at a later date. The 1.5-million-acre coastal plain, identified in Section 1002 of the legislation, has been known since as the 1002 Area.

Despite the close ties, industry officials insist they are not getting a free pass.

"I'm not expecting a rubber stamp," said Kara Moriarty, the chief executive of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, who has a framed photo with Zinke in her Anchorage office. "I'm expecting a very diligent and thorough process."

But those who oppose drilling in the refuge, including many Democrats in Washington, suspect the Interior Department is not being so diligent. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., who will become chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee next month, said he would probably call a hearing about the Arctic development with the goal of slowing it down.

"We can make sure that corners are not being cut," said Grijalva.

Scores of environmental organizations are also watching closely, ready to sue whenever an opportunity arises.

"There's going to be damage, going to be long-lasting effects from what they do," said Geoffrey Haskett, president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association and a former Alaska regional director with the Fish and Wildlife Service, the managing agency of the refuge. "I just can't imagine that what we're going to see is going to be adequate," he added, referring to the environmental evaluations.

Business on 12/04/2018

Print Headline: Refuge's anti-drill policies unravel

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