A federal lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is on track for late this year, Joe Balash, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Lands and Minerals, told a petroleum industry conference in Anchorage last Thursday.

Balash said his agency expects to publish a final Environmental Impact Statement for leasing in the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain of ANWR in August.

“Once the final EIS is published a Record of Decision and a notice for leasing will follow,” Balash said.

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Alaskans have high hopes for major oil and gas discoveries in the coastal plain, but whether there will be major finds depends on drilling. That usually isn’t done until leases are sold to companies.

ANWR is the nation’s largest wildlife refuge, covering 19.2 million acres in far northeast Alaska. Eight million acres of the 19.2 million acres are given a federal wilderness designation, the most protected status under U.S. law.

However, the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain area near the Arctic coast was excluded from the wilderness classification because of its oil and gas potential.

This done in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act, but Congress did not authorize actual exploration until a provision was included in last year’s federal tax reform act.

Balash also said a revised land management plan for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska on the western North Slope is under preparation.

“We expect to have a draft published by the end of the summer,” he said.

The new plan is expected to make more prospective acreage in the petroleum reserve available for leasing compared with the current plan prepared under the Obama administration, which industry critics and Alaska officials have said puts too many areas with prime geology into restricted areas.

Interior is working closely with the North Slope Borough, the regional municipal government, Balash said.

On a more downbeat note, Balash said Outer Continental Shelf leasing off Alaska’s coast is on the back burner for now.

A court decision this spring by a federal judge in Alaska has put Interior’s plans for an aggressive OCS sales program nation-wide on the shelf.

“The Chukchi Sea, the highest-potential area off Alaska, is on the back burner until we get a legal strategy figured out,” in dealing with a decision by Alaska U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason. Gleason’s decision halting the new federal 5-year OCS plan has been appealed, Balash said, but the legal arguments are still in development.

“We’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of us on this and then we’ve got the Ninth Circuit (court of appeals) to deal with,” he said. The Ninth Circuit has a reputation for favoring environmental plaintiffs in many cases.

Meanwhile, DOI officials have been combing through an estimated 1 million comments received during the ANWR draft EIS process and public hearings, including 2,500 comments dealing with specific issues where responses from the agency are needed, Balash told the AOGA conference.

Leasing in the refuge is a major national issue for U.S. environmental groups, and expected litigation could delay the sale.

Balash said DOI is also responding to concerns raised by Canada over protection of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, a group of animals that migrate between parts of northern Alaska within the area to be leased and adjacent acres in Canada’s Yukon Territory where there are First Nation village which depend on the caribou for subsistence.

Balash said he met with Canadian officials in Ottawa last week to deal with concerns.

The caribou are protected under a U.S.-Canada treaty and Canadian officials have objected to ANWR leasing on the grounds that it could violate the treaty.

U.S. government geologists have rated ANWR’s coastal plain as the most prospective undeveloped U.S. onshore area and in a 1998 assessment estimated that from 5.7 billion to 16 billion barrels of oil could be discovered, with a mean estimate of 10.4 billion barrels.

However, much is unknown about the petroleum potential. One exploration well was drilled in 1986 by Chevron and BP on an inholding in the refuge owned by Kaktovik Inupiat Corp. and Arctic Slope Regional Corp., two Alaska Native corporations, but the results are tightly-held.

A limited seismic program was also conducted in the 1990s using technology then used, which identified several geologic prospects, but a more detailed seismic planned last year with newer technology was not done.

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