The federal government has leasing in ANWR on the fast-track, and a lease sale could come as early as July, 2019.
The “scoping” process for an Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, for ANWR is now underway. The EIS itself will be completed in late spring, 2019, Balash said. “We will definitely have a lease sale. The law (the federal Tax and Jobs Acts of 2017) says ‘we shall,” Balash said.
Now that the decision has been made by Congress, “the purpose of the EIS is to inform the public and federal agencies on the impacts.
The department is required to hold two lease sales of not less than 400,000 acres each in a 1.6-million acre section of coastal plain in the refuge.
In a series of “scoping” meetings now underway, “we are asking people for advice on what kinds of impacts we should look for,” Balash said.
Many people speaking in the Anchorage scoping meeting were supportive of leasing, including labor groups and community leaders.
Not everyone was in support, however. Dana Tizya-Tramm, speaking for the Gwitchin tribal government, which opposes leasing, said the leases would be sold in the heart of the summer calving area for the Porcupine caribou herd, which migrates to ANWR’s coastal plain every year.
Even if there is a 2,000-acre limit on surface disturbance (in the federal law) these acres will be spread out in a way that will be very disruptive to calving, he said.
“This is doing heart surgery,” Tizya-Tramm said.
Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska regional director for the Wilderness Society, agreed:
“Oil and gas drilling would have devastating impacts on this pristine and fragile ecosystem because of the massive infrastructure that would sprawl throughout the coastal plain to extract and transport oil,” Whittington-Evans said.
“Drilling in the Arctic is dangerous. Chronic spills of oil and other toxic substances onto the fragile tundra and, potentially, its waterways, would forever scar this now pristine land and disrupt its wildlife,” she said.
Whittington-Evans said the North Slope is fast becoming “an industrial zone,” with pipelines, production pads and various infrastructure now stretching from near the ANWR border, at Point Thomson, across the slope and now into the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska to the west.
“Protecting the Arctic Refuge coastal plain would be a reasonable way to achieve balance in the Arctic.,” protecting part of the coastal area as pristine, she said.
“We do not need oil from the Arctic Refuge and this move is an overreach by industry advocates. The nation is awash in oil from less expensive sources. We are exporting oil to other countries and the trans-Alaska pipeline flow has been increasing since 2015,” she said.
Meanwhile, Interior officials are working on what kinds of lease stipulations would be applied in the sale. Balash said the stipulations used in leasing in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska on the western North Slope provides a model, but there are also special conditions in the Arctic refuge.
While the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has overall management responsibility for ANWR the responsibility for managing the leasing was given to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in the tax act because of BLM’s experience in leasing in the NPR-A.
An interesting aspect of the ANWR leasing is that private Native American landowners, Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and Kaktovik Inupiat Corp., own the subsurface and surface rights to a 91,000-acre inholding in the coastal plain area.
The Assistant Secretary said that as private owners ASRC and KIC are free to use their land as they see it, even holding their own lease sale and with no requirements to use lease stipulations adopted by the Interior Department for the federal leases.
“However, if a discovery is made any pipeline would have to cross federally-owned lands and environmental requirements stipulated by the Department of the Interior would apply,” Balash said.
Some federal laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, do apply to the private lands in the ANWR inholding, however.
The only exploration well drilled in the refuge was on the private lands owned by ASRC and KIC. Results of the well, KIC No 1 drilled in the eary 1980s by Chevron and BP, have been held confidential since.
The private enclave is in a central area of ANWR’s coastal plain south of Barter Island, where Kaktovik, a small Inupiat village, is also located. A pipeline would have to be built west to connect with existing infrastructure at Point Thomson, which is on state lands west of the Canning River boundary of ANWR.
Point Thomson is about 60 miles east of Prudhoe Bay and Pump Station One of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System. A liquids pipeline has been built from Point Thomson to Prudhoe Bay to carry condensates from an ExxonMobil-operated gas cycling project at Point Thomson and crude oil from the small Badami field, which is about 25 miles east of Prudhoe.
One of the problems the department is wrestling with is how to deal with a limit of 2,000 acres of surface disturbance for development of any discoveries, Balash said. The limit is in the federal tax act that authorized the leasing.
“We have to craft a way to deal with this in the lease sale,” in how the limits on surface use will be allocated across tracts that will be offered. “We have not yet determined a way to do it,” Balash said.
North Slope field developers have been able to minimize surface impacts using techniques like horizontal drilling but the acres used for drill pads, roads and other surface facilities could quickly add up depending on the areal extent of the underground reservoir.
State natural resources Commissioner Andy Mack, speaking during the scoping session, said current North Slope projects demonstrate the industry’s ability to build compact facilities that minimize surface impact.
“One example is at ConocoPhillips’s CD-5 drillsite, which covers eight acres. Another is ExxonMobil’s Point Thomson project, which covers 250 acres,” Mack said.
CD-5 is a relatively new production pad built as an extension of the Alpine field in the west-central North Slope. Point Thomson is a multi-billion-dollar natural gas cycling and liquid condensate production project east of Prudhoe Bay, and in fact very near the ANWR boundary.
Mack reminded federal officials at the scoping session that 50 percent of ANWR production royalties will go to the state of Alaska. Development in the refuge is important for the state budget, he said.
Exploration in ANWR has been controversial since the Arctic refuge was created by Congress in the Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act of 1980. While much of ANWR, which totals 19 million acres, was given a federal wilderness designation the coastal plain was excluded from wilderness because of its oil and gas potential.
However, the 1980 law also stipulated that no exploration or development would be allowed until approved by Congress, and several efforts at gaining that approval over the years have been stymied by intense lobbying by conservation groups.
It was finally accomplished late last year when Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who chairs the Senate’s energy committee, succeeded in getting the ANWR authorization attached to the federal tax act.
U.S. Geological Survey estimates are that are coastal plain could hold as much as nine to 10 billion barrels of recoverable oil.