An Alaska Native corporation has renewed its application to conduct a winter seismic survey on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge after the U.S. Department of the Interior failed to act on approvals for required aerial polar bear surveys by a Feb. 13 deadline, according to the corporation’s president, Matthew Rexford.
The agency said it had been swamped responding to six million comments filed on ANWR leasing and the seismic application to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the USF&WS did not get authorization for the aerial surveys done in time. “It was the agency that ran the time out, not us,” said Rexford in an. interview.
The U.S. Geological Survey believes the coastal plain of ANWR, where KIC owns its lands, to have potential for significant oil and gas discoveries.
KIC is the village corporation for Kaktovik, an Inupiat community on Barter Island at the northern coastal boundary of the refuge. KIC owns surface lands in a 92,000-area inholding in the coastal plain with a second Native American company, Arctic Slope Regional Corp., owning subsurface rights.
KIC had commissioned the seismic survey, by SA Exploration, an Alaska-based company, for a regional geologic evaluation that would include its lands.
In a related development, a state of Alaska agency that holds seven tracts in ANWR leased by the BLM in its Jan. 6 lease sale said it is preparing an application to the Interior Department to do a seismic survey on acreage it holds. The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, or AIDEA, bid on and won seven of nine tracts leased in the sale.
AIDEA is Alaska’s state development corporation. Alan Weitzner, its executive director, told state legislators in a March 1 brlefing that his agency is preparing plans to solicit private companies for possible partnerships in exploring and developing the leases.
However, the authority needs updated seismic information to evaluate geologic potential, Weitzner told the Senate Finance Committee in Juneau. A survey done in the 1980s using older two-dimensional seismic technology is of some use but a more modern three-dimensional survey is needed now, he said.
Interior told KIC it can no longer consider its application based on the missed deadline, which means the corporation has effectively lost its ability to do the survey this winter. KIC has now asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to keep its application active but to change the dates so that aerial polar bears surveys would be done next December or January with the seismic survey conducted in February and March.
If done, KIC’s survey would occur on the “Marsh Creek East” area of the coastal plain on about 352,400 acres. It would include the 92,000 acres of lands owned by KIC and about 260,400 acres of federally managed refuge lands, according to the Department of the Interior notice published in the Federal Register. While KIC’s focus is on its own lands by necessity the survey should include adjacent acreage in the refuge itself so that geologists a broad er picture of the regional geology.
The state’s leases held by AIDEA are west of the KIC lands, but if the state authority proceeds with its plan they could be included with KIC’s lands so that only one geophysical program would be needed.
BLM approves the seismic program on refuge lands and the newly issued leases but the fish and wildlife service is in charge of polar bear protection and must issue a separate permit, an Incidental Harassment Authorization, or IHA, for any activity including aerial flights at 1,500 feet or below that might disturb bears.
KIC planned to use heat-sensing infrared technology to detect bears hibernating in dens on the tundra but must fly at altitudes of 1,500 feet or below for the systems to work reliably. At those lower altitudes the U.S.F&WS must issue the IHA, and it was that authorization that did not get done by the deadline.
Rexford, KIC’s president, said he and other Kaktovik residents were infuriated when the Interior Department issued a press release that it would not approve KIC’s request based on the missed flights, inferring that the fault lay with KIC.
The press release did not mention that the agency itself had delayed in approving the request for overflights. “It was the agency that ran the time out, not us,” said Rexford.
Based on the missed deadlines, Interior says it can no longer consider the application made by Kaktovik Inupiat Corp., or KIC, the village corporation for the community of Kaktovik on Barter Island, at the northern boundary of the refuge.
KIC owns surface lands in a 92,000-area inholding in ANWR’s coastal plain with a second Native American company, Arctic Slope Regional Corp., owning subsurface rights. KIC had commissioned the seismic survey, by SA Exploration, an Alaska-based company, for a regional geologic evaluation including its lands.
“Our problem was that we couldn’t conduct the aerial surveys without an IHA (Individual Harassment” authorization from the US Fish and
Wildlife Service, but we also couldn’t get permitted for the seismic by that same agency without (the flights,)” Rexford said in a statement.
The Individual Harassment Authorization is a federal permit that allows for potential disturbance of a polar bear, such as by an aircraft.
“We offered to fly higher with our aircraft. We offered to reduce noise levels, and we offered to accommodate any other potential impacts.
The answer was consistently no. They held all the cards and we saw a lot of delays,” Rexford said.