The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain and birth place and nursery grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd. (mappery.com

Oil must flow: draft plan on ANWR drilling program

‘Practically speaking, we will be moving forward here and implementing the law’

While some calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd could be exempt from oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), future development is inevitable, said Joe Balash, assistant secretary for land and minerals at the U.S. Department of the Interior.

These statements came out during a Washington, D.C. press conference on Dec. 19, before the anticipated release of the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which includes potential measures to offset environmental impacts.

Keeping oil and gas extraction away from the coastal plain wouldn’t comply with recently passed legislation, according to the draft plan.

“Realistically, Congress has told us to have this sale,” Balash said. “Practically speaking, we will be moving forward here and implementing the law.”

In December 2017, ANWR’s coastal plain was opened up to the possibility of oil and gas leases when the Trump administration inserted a provision in to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

It’s a move that counters years without development plans in one of the largest wildlife refuges in the world.

The American Bureau of Land Management, a branch of the Department of the Interior, is essentially hamstrung by the language in the act, said Malkolm Boothroyd, a campaigner at the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon.

“It’s obviously disappointing that they’re effectively rejecting the no action alternative in the draft EIS,” he said, adding that the entire coastal plain is “critical” habitat for Porcupine caribou.

The draft plan considers the herd and their calving grounds.

Options included in the draft, issued one year after the tax bill became law, could offer some degree of protection to the caribou herd, considered a culturally sacred animal to the Gwich’in people, who live in Alaska, the Yukon, and Northwest Territories, and exercise subsistence harvesting (the U.S. and Canadian governments signed an international treaty in 1987 around conserving the caribou).

“Whether it’s timing limitations on surface activity, no surface occupancy in the area, or, in a couple of cases, the acreage itself in that primary calving habitat is not available for using at all,” Balash said.

The draft plan will undergo a 45-day public feedback period between Dec. 28 and Feb. 11, after which specific areas for leasing will be determined. Public hearings will also be held.

The final EIS will likely be released in early summer, Balash said, adding that the first lease sale is expected to occur in 2019.

Potential alternatives for the caribou include halting major construction activities from moving in during calving and insect-relief periods from May 20 to July 20, “unless approved by the BLM,” according to the draft plan.

This would exclude drilling from existing production pads, it adds.

There are exceptions to these dates.

“If caribou arrive on the calving grounds before May 20, or if they remain in the area past July 20 in significant numbers (greater than approximately 10 per cent of the estimated calving cow population or 1,000 during insect-relief periods), major construction would be suspended,” it says.

The acreage of the calving ground, which encompasses roughly 721,000 acres, the draft plan says, is broken down, divvied up between development and caribou habitats.

One option could involve putting out to lease about 606,000 acres of the calving area, it says, but subject to no surface occupancy (a prohibition of all or some surface disturbances).

Another involves 476,600 acres being off-limits, leaving 244,600 acres to be leased with no surface occupancy.

In both of these instances, seismic testing, or oil exploration, could still be permitted.

The draft makes note of post-calving habitat, which extends beyond where the caribou primarily rear their young.

Sections of road could be evacuated when there are more than 100 animals crossing, for instance, or no central processing facilities would be allowed in post-calving areas.

The potential provisions were drawn up to ensure the herd “remains abundant and sustainable,” Balash said.

The draft plan is a massive body of work, with roughly 1,000 pages, when combining the executive summary, maps and appendixes.

The Inupiat and Gwich’in people, Indigenous groups in Alaska, provided input.

“They were instrumental in helping us develop these alternative scenarios,” Balash said, adding that federal, state and local governments also made submissions, along with the private sector.

Dana Tizya-Tramm, chief-elect of Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow, who first learned about the release date of the draft plan from a News reporter on Dec. 19, said extraction activities in the refuge “cannot be done.”

“Any presence in this area will have a direct effect on the future of all of our grandchildren in the North, directly,” he said. “This draft EIS is the dropping of the puck, and now we will see if we can bring this home or if in fact it will be them who scores the goals.”

Tizya-Tramm said he, along with other Indigenous groups, will make a submission in response to the draft plan.

It will “reflect our perspectives, which is joined by thousands across the Americas, that this simply cannot happen in a way that promotes the integrity of existing ecosystems, especially with caribou …” he said.

The refuge, located in northern Alaska, encompasses roughly 19 million acres; the leasing program area is roughly 1.5 million acres, comprised of federal lands and waters. About 7.7 billion barrels of oil are expected to be beneath the program area, the draft plan says.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service holds significant clout here because it’s principally responsible for managing the coastal plain.

Changes to the tax act last year mean that one lease must be pushed through in four years.

The legislation stipulates that no fewer than two lease sales, each to include at least 400,000 acres with the highest potential of hydrocarbons, must occur by 2024.

The News recently reported that one company is interested in exploring for oil in the coastal plains. Its proposal is separate from EIS process.

The company behind it, SAExploration, wants to send out a fleet of “thumper trucks” into the refuge, capable of hitting the earth with 64,000 pounds of force in order to map oil deposits beneath the surface.

Concerns include polar bears and their dens.

The Bureau of Land Management has developed an environmental assessment process that the seismic program will be routed through, Balash said.

Contact Julien Gignac at julien.gignac@yukon-news.com

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