US Interior Department to begin ANWR leasing preparations

Anchorage (Platts)--12 Mar 2018 631 pm EDT/2231 GMT

The US Department of the Interior has begun preparations for oil and gas leasing in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and will use a new, streamlined procedure for its environmental review, a top Interior official said Monday.

"We expect to publish a Notice of Intent to begin an Environmental Impact Statement very soon. That will kick off a 60-day series of 'scoping' meetings, after which we begin preparation of the draft EIS," Joe Balash, DOI's assistant secretary for land and water management, said in an interview.

Balash said the ANWR Environmental Impact Statement will fall under a new Interior Department policy of completing an EIS within one year and limiting it to 300 pages. In the past, EIS documents have exceeded 1,000 pages and have taken several years to complete.

But if the EIS is rushed, it may provide openings for inevitable lawsuits filed by US environmental groups. "If the review is done in a way that circumvents existing laws and procedures, I'm sure our attorneys will consider litigation options," said Tony Iallonardo, spokesman for The Wilderness Society, a major conservation group interested in ANWR.

"Our expectation has been that it will be very difficult for agencies to complete the review and analysis needed for a complex issue such as opening up [ANWR] to oil and gas leasing within such time line and page limits," said Nada Culver, Wilderness Society's Senior Counsel.

"We expect quite a bit of litigation, and quite a lot of it successful, coming out of this new policy direction," Culver said in a statement.

Exploration in the 1.2 million acre coastal plain within the refuge, considered highly prospective by geologists, has been a political hot button for decades. Congress once granted approval, only to have President Bill Clinton veto the bill. A second attempt came near to passage under the second George W. Bush administration, but was defeated 51-49 in a Republican-controlled US Senate.

A provision tucked into the federal tax bill Congress passed late last year granted approval and required the Department of the Interior to hold two lease sales of 400,000 acres within 10 years. The US Geological Survey has estimated the potential for discovery of up to 10 billion barrels of oil in the coastal plain.

The Arctic refuge is the nation's largest wildlife refuge, covering 19.2 million acres and extending south from the Arctic coast to the southern Brooks Range. Most of its lands are designated as wilderness, but the 1.2 million acres of the coastal plain were kept out of the wilderness-designated area because of its petroleum potential.

Balash said Interior has not yet decided whether to offer up 400,000 acres in an "area-wide" lease sale or to make smaller blocks available for bidding. One problem is that subsurface information available to the department is limited to results of one geophysical survey in the 1980s that was done with older seismic technology.

"We expect to see applications for more seismic next winter," done with modern seismic technology, Balash said. The state of Alaska might participate with a $10 million contribution to an industry group-led seismic "shoot" to help get it moving, state natural resources commissioner Andy Mack said.

Alaska has a stake in the leasing because it will receive 50% of bonus bids and production royalties under the legislation passed in December, Mack said.

The seismic survey could cost up to $80 million to $100 million, according to industry estimates.

Balash said the federal government has estimated that its 50% share of the first lease sale bids will total $1 billion, so the state would receive an equal amount. --Tim Bradner,

--Edited by Jeff Mower,

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