Alaska’s state development authority will be testing the Department of the Interior’s action to suspend lease activities in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Alaska Industrial Development Authority, or AIDEA, is proceeding with plans to market its leases to industry and has started preparations to apply for permits for a winter seismic survey, the authority’s board was told June 23 by Alan Wietzner, the authority’s executive director.

Federal leases in ANWR were purchased last January by AIDEA in a lease sale held days before President Joe Biden was sworn into office to take over from outgoing President Donald Trump.

Biden opposes ANWR exploration and his Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland, announced on early June that lease actions in the refuge would be suspended by he department.

AIDEA feels Interior may be on weak legal ground on its suspension, however.

“The Department of the Interior has not identified any statutory or regulatory basis for the suspension,” AIDEA’s staff wrote in a memorandum to the authority’s board.

“AIDEA holds valid and enforceable leases in compliance with the (BLM) lease program’s statutory directive,” in the 2017 tax act,” the memorandum said.

The authority asked the Interior Department about authority in a June 11 letter.

As of July 12, “we have still not received any response to our letter of June 11th requesting that the DOI provide the statutory or regulatory basis underlying the purported suspension.” Weitzer wrote Monday in an email.

Interior has also said, however, that it would suspend lease rental payments and the “tolling,” or time counted against the 10-year terms of leases, while the suspension is in effects.

Meanwhile, the state agency will budget $1.5 million to hire consultants to prepare the seismic application.

“Planning and permitting work is necessary to proceed with what we are currently planning to be multi-phased, multi-year seismic surveying of AIDEA’s leases for exploration,” Wietzner said.

The application will test the Interior Department’s policy of allowing no lease activity. Interior turned down a similar application earlier this year from Kaktovik Inupiat Corp., an Alaska Native corporation that owns a 91,000 private enclave within the refuge.

AIDEA holds eight leases covering 365,775 acres acquired in the January sale held by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management under the Trump administration.

BLM issued the eight leases to the state authority along with two other leases won by private companies, on Jan. 19, one day before President Trump left office.

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden announced he would review last-minute actions by Trump, including in ANWR. This was followed by Haaland’s announcement that lease activities would be suspended pending a review of BLM’s assessment of environmental impacts under Trump.

Interior declined to approve Kaktovik’s seismic application on the ground that the corporation failed to do adequate surveys of possible polar bear dens that might be affected by its seismic activity.

AIDEA’s leases are adjacent to the Kaktovik lands and it is possible that the private lands may be included. Weitzner said the state authority is open to that but has not discussed the possibility with the Native corporation, which is owned by residents of Kaktovik, an Inupiat village on Barter Island at the northern coastal boundary of the refuge.

The private lands were obtained through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, an act passed by Congress allowing Native communities in Alaska like Kaktovik to select public lands to settle original claims to public lands.

Kakovik’s lands are in the northern central part of ANWR’s coastal plain, while AIDEA’s leases extend west to near the Canning River, the refuge boundary with State of Alaska lands.

The region is felt by geologists to have potential for major discoveries but it has only been lightly explored with one test well drilled in the early 1980s on the Kaktovik lands, the results which are still confidential, and a seismic survey done in the mid-1980s using older geophysical technology.

One reason why geologists see potential in the refuge’s north-central region is that oil and gas has already been discovered on state lands just west of the Canning River boundary, including the 8-tcf Point Thomson gas and condensate field as well as Sourdough, a 50 million barrel-plus known deposit that appears to straddle the state/refuge border.

Sourdough, which is undeveloped, was discovered years ago by BP and is now being explored by an Alaska-based independent, Jade Energy.

To date AIDEA has spent $12.8 million on its ANWR leases including the first-year rental of $3.65 million, according to documents presented to the authority’s board June 23.

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