Petroleum explorers were boxed out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for winter seismic program to prepare for a lease sale later this year.

Delays in receiving a federal permit caused the program, planned by an Alaska geophysical company, to be cancelled,

Now a Canadian company wants to try an alternative, to do airborne geophysical surveys over the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain of ANWR this summer. That will allow companies to have at least some information in time for the lease sale.

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This has raised the ire of conservation groups, who believe summer air traffic in the refuge could amount to wildlife hazing.

The coastal plain, east of the Prudhoe Bay area of the North Slope where major discoveries have been made, is considered to have high potential because of its attractive geology

CGG Canada Services Ltd. of Mississauga, Ontario, is planning the airborne survey. It could be able provide data that, when matched with information from a dated 1980s seismic survey, could be useful for companies planning to bid in the lease sale, persons familiar with the project said on background.

However, a coalition of 14 conservation groups has sent letters to U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials and to the company objecting to the survey and citing concerns over effects on caribou calving, waterfowl and other wildlife from low-level helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft involved.

The Interior department says it has no jurisdiction over aerial operations.

“DOI does not have the authority to require a permit for airborne geophysical data collection that have no ground component on federal lands,” agency spokesperson Molly Block said in a statement.

“FWS (U.S. Fish and Wildlife) and BLM gave the company guidelines for best practices to mitigate potential impacts to terrestrial and marine mammals and migratory birds,” she said in the statement.

The conservation groups have a different view. “Interior’s position that it will not regulate this activity is disturbing because such flights will undoubtably involve several effects–including loud, sustained noise–that could have deleterious impacts on wildlife and resource users,” said the letter, which was signed by 14 conservation organizations.

“Interior’s denial of responsibility to protect the resources of the (wildlife) refuge from this potentially harmful activity is as disturbing as it is puzzling,” the letter said.

Federal regulations now require that a minimum 2,000-foot altitude be maintained and a half-mile lateral clearance in overflights of refuges when wildlife is present.

Oil and gas exploration in ANWR’s coastal plain, an area considered to have high potential for major oil and gas discoveries, has been highly controversial for decades.

Congress included the coastal plain in the refuge in 1980 in the Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act but did not include it in a designated wilderness area and provided for further study of its petroleum potential.

Proposals in Congress for exploration, which typically require lease sales, have prompted fierce resistance from conservation groups over the years. Efforts to get Congress to allow exploration have failed until last year, when Alaska’s delegation in Congress was successful in getting a lease sale authorization included in the federal tax reform bill.

The Interior Department now plans two lease sales with the first to be held last this year. That schedule could be altered by lawsuits from the conservation groups.

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