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

One company is proposing to scout for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

A draft environment impact statement isn’t finished so it’s unclear when work would begin, if approved

One proposal to find oil in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) has been received by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

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

Using high-tech sensors that pinpoint and measure vibrations, the plan would be to build digital images, a “3D seismic survey,” the company calls it.

“Seismic exploration generates acoustic waves that are picked up by sensors as the waves bounce off subsurface formations,” the proposal says, some of which, it continues, could contain hydrocarbons.

Neither the company nor Ted Smith, identified as the operations supervisor in the operation plan, responded to requests for comment.

While the plan says the project could begin on Dec. 10, a BLM spokesperson said a draft environment impact statement hasn’t been completed.

This could mean the survey’s start date will likely be pushed back, if it’s approved.

“The application has been received and we are processing it,” BLM spokesperson Lesli Ellis-Wouters said in a written statement. “There has been no authorization issued and there won’t be until after a 30-day public review period.”

She added that the impact statement will likely be available next month.

The proposal and operation plan were submitted to the BLM in the summer.

Included in amendments to the American Tax Act in December 2017 was an oil and gas leasing program for the refuge’s coastal plains. One lease must be pushed through in four years.

Under the act, no fewer than two lease sales, each to include no fewer than 400,000 acres with the highest potential of hydrocarbons, must occur by 2024.

Where drilling is slated to take place is also where the Porcupine caribou herd, a sacred animal to the Gwich’in people, rear their young.

In 1987, the U.S. and Canadian governments signed an international agreement around conserving the caribou.

Dana Tizya-Tramm, chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow, said if the seismic survey goes forward, it would do “irreparable” damage to the flora and fauna of the area.

Already, he said, the effects of climate change are playing out in the region — less snow, for instance, and there are more polar bears roaming around due to receding ice.

There are about 1,500 polar bears located in and around the southern Beaufort Sea, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“To move in there with thumper trucks that are to simulate the same impact as dynamite to be checkerboarding right across this area … what is that going to mean when for two crews of hundreds of people and all of these vehicles,” Tizya-Tramm said.

“You’re going to be scaring animals. That is going to destabilize a very important part of their cycles since time immemorial.”

He noted the impacts of 2D seismic testing done in the 1980s that are still present, with cotton grasses and other flora barely able to recover.

“You can still see the trails today,” he said.

The vehicles, colloquially called “vibrators,” weigh roughly 90,000 lbs with tracks, the operation plan says.

The proposal says there would be 12 to 15 of them.

Because they can collect data simultaneously, this means that only one will be sent out any source line, “thereby reducing risk compaction or damage to the tundra,” the proposal says. The trucks would be spaced 1,320 feet apart.

There would be between 20,000 to 25,000 recording devices for each crew, the proposal says. Operations would run 24/7.

The location of the survey spans roughly 1.7 million acres – the entire coastal plan, also known as “1002 Area.” Equipment would be stored at Deadhorse, Alaska, then carted out to two camps via tundra or sea ice. Each camp, which would be set a minimum of 500 feet away from water bodies, has enough capacity to house 160 people, the proposal says.

About 6,000 to 7,000 gallons of fuel would be transported to the camps every day.

The crews would be sent out during two winter seasons, beginning in 2018 and ending in 2020, at the latest, the proposal says.

There are rules in place to ward off chance encounters with wildlife, which, during the winter, include wolverines, musk ox, maybe “overwintering caribou” and polar bears.

A survey of polar bear dens would be completed before oil exploration beings in areas they’re detected. Those discovered would be reported by crews, the operation plan says.

“Personnel would remain at least a one-half mile distance from brown bear dens and 1-mile from polar bear dens,” the proposal says, noting that if dens were found within a 1-mile radius, activities would stop.

So, too, would cultural sites and Native American allotments be accounted for.

“All cultural or historic sites within the project area would be avoided with a 500-foot buffer around the sites and Native Allotments would also be avoided,” the proposal says. “All mobile equipment would have a navigation system installed for logistics and for mapping/locating avoidance areas.”

An oversight panel would be established ahead of the survey to ensure the survey doesn’t conflict with Native Americans carrying out subsistence harvesting, according to the proposal.

SAExploration intends to manage its environmental footprint in ANWR by reducing the number equipment on the tundra; using “low ground pressure vehicles” to prevent excess compaction; and smaller vehicles, the operation plan says.

“All spills, no matter the size, would be tracked and cleaned up by SAE,” the proposal says.

Tizya-Tramm called these things “flowery words” — that there’s no conflict resolution.

“Where are the mechanisms for meaningful influence on this? Because I have not seen it,” he said, adding that the BLM isn’t listening to his assertions and is dropping the ball when it comes to communication.

“I actually have to fly to another country to have five minutes to speak to them,” he said.

“I see this as a continuation of merely checking boxes to wholesale leases of this area,” Tizya-Tramm said, noting it’s the Gwich’in people who are bringing the issue up on behalf of the world.

“If the world is willing to lose the last largest land animal migration on earth for maybe ten years of oil, then what does that signal to our natural systems,” he said.

“It’s our assertion and our traditional understanding that this place is a wellspring that drives ecosystems, and all you have to do is leave it alone. This area needs to be fully protected until the end of time, not just for the Gwich’in, not just for North America, but for the world.”

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

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