Bradner bears

Seismic station.

The government’s approval of a plan to do seismic work this winter in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has become tangled up with questions on whether hibernating polar bears might be disturbed by big seismic trucks rolling across frozen tundra, state officials familiar with the ANWR program said.

Lesli Ellis-Wouters, a U.S. Bureau of Land Management spokesperson, said her agency has not yet acted on the application by SA Exploration, a seismic company, to do winter geophysical surveys in the coastal plain of the Arctic refuge in anticipation of lease sales.

It might now be too late, because of the delay, to mobilize equipment and crews for the survey, which ordinarily would be underway in January.

The issue may also be complicating the pending release of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for ANWR lease sales by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. The DEIS was to have been published in November but is delayed and the polar bear issue may be a factor, former state Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack said in an interview just before leaving office Dec. 3.

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, in Alaska last weel to survey earthquake damage, said Friday that the U.S. Interior Department is working hard to keep the lease sale on schedule. “A lease sale in 2019 is still possible but they will have to stick to a strict schedule.

The Interior Department’s policy recently has been to get the EIS document approved within a year, so if the draft is published in the next couple of weeks a sale in December, 2019, is still possible. But environmental groups are waiting to file lawsuits, and polar bear endangerment issue will be forefront in the litigation.

Polar bears, which sleep through the winter in snow dens, are protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act, said Rosa Meehan, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who managed the agency’s program to protect the bears.

To approve a plan for a winter seismic survey or the lease sale Interior must comply with the Endangered Species Act, Meehan said in an interview. “The fish and wildlife service must be convinced that the company will be able to spot the dens where bears are hibernating and to avoid them when doing the seismic shoot,” she said.

Mack said the problem is that infrared sensing equipment typically used by seismic companies to locate bear dens in the central North Slope will not work as well in ANWR, which is to the east, because the terrain is hilly.

Across the central slope area, in contrast, the terrain is flat, which improves the effectiveness of the infrared sensing, Mack said. Meehan said even in flat terrain the equipment is effective in finding bear dens only 60 percent of the time.

Steve Amstrup, a retired federal scientists who is now chief scientist at Montana-based Polar Bear International, said research he has done indicates that the surveillance systems planned by SA Exploration would likely spot only 50 percent of dens occupied by hibernating female bears who would also be giving birth to cubs.

Amstrup based that on test surveys he participated in where the bear dens were known to be occupied, in which a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) systems, typically mounted on helicopters, missed a lot of the bear dens.

Visual, ground-based surveys fared no better. The problem is that the snow gets so deep in the steeper terrain of ANWR’s coastal plain that the infrared does not detect the heat. “On average, there is a 25 percent chance that at lease one undetected bear den would be run over with likely fatal consequences,” Amstrup said in written comments to the BLM.

The complication, Mack said, is that Interior may have to resolve the problem with spotting the bear dens in the proposed seismic survey before issuing the DEIS for the lease sale because there cannot be different standards used in an environmental assessment for the seismic work and the EIS for the lease sale.

Environmental groups are closely watching Interior’s preparations for the lease sale and the seismic survey and will quickly litigate over any differences in protection measures for polar bears.

Nicole Whittington-Evans, the Wilderness Society’s Alaska director, would not comment on the prospect for lawsuits but said her group along with the Sierra Club and other conservation organizations, believe exploration activities in the refuge will cause harm to wildlife.

SA Exploration, the company planning the seismic work, would not return phone calls on the status of the proposed program, but sources in industry, asking not to be identified, said the seismic company had delayed its deadline for customers who would share in the data. SA Exploration was seeking four clients but by mid-November only two had signed up, the source said.

The political radioactivity over the Arctic refuge and public relations problems may have chilled customers for SA Exploration, the source said. This could particularly be a problem for major oil companies.

The political firestorm over Shell’s drilling in the Alaskan Chukchi Sea in recent years, where the company spent over $6 billion before pulling the plug, is still fresh in the minds of executives of large firms.

However, Mack believes two large companies, BP and Chevron, are interested in ANWR, and possibly the seismic survey, because the company’s plan covers not only the 1.5-million-acre federally-owned section of the refuge coastal plain but also a 92,000-acre private inholding where subsurface rights are held by Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and leased to BP and Chevron.

ASRC leased the acreage to BP and Chevron in the early 1980s and the two companies drilled one exploration well, KIC No. 1, with the results still held confidential.

Mack said he was informed that BP and Chevron renewed their rights to the acreage earlier this year.

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