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White House Releases New Plan for Seismic Tests in Arctic Refuge

The Trump administration has relaunched long-delayed plans to conduct a seismic survey in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska as a prelude to drilling for oil there.

The Bureau of Land Management on Friday released a proposal to begin a seismic survey in December that would look for underground signs of oil reserves over more than half a million acres on the east side of the refuge’s coastal plain. The Bureau said it would accept public comments on the plan, which was proposed by an Alaska Native village corporation, for 14 days before deciding whether to issue a permit.

Environmental and conservation groups in Alaska and elsewhere immediately criticized the action, saying it would permanently harm the delicate Arctic tundra and affect polar bears and other wildlife in what is one of the most remote and pristine parts of the United States. They also said that the rapid time frame meant that a thorough environmental review would not be possible.

“The submission of this application and BLM’s choice to act on it so close to the election shows how desperate the administration is to turn over one of the nation’s most sensitive landscapes to the oil industry,” Lois Epstein, director of the Arctic program for the Wilderness Society, said in a statement. “The federal government is recklessly rushing and irresponsibly denying the public adequate time to assess the application and submit comments.”

The land that would be surveyed is part of the so-called 1002 Area, which the Trump Administration and Congress opened to oil and gas development in 2017, reversing decades of protections. In August, the Interior Department finished reviews of plans to sell oil and gas leases in the area, saying the sale could occur before the end of the year. Environmental groups have filed suit to stop the sale, and so far the lease sales have not occurred.

The 1002 Area is thought to overlie geological formations that might hold billions of barrels of oil, but that assessment is based largely on the only seismic survey ever conducted there, in the 1980s. Only one exploratory well has ever been drilled in the refuge, and a New York Times investigation found that the results were disappointing.

The new proposal, by the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation, would use improved technology that can produce three-dimensional images of underground formations. It would involve deploying heavy trucks across the tundra in a grid pattern, as well as supplies and mobile living quarters for a crew of 180 workers.

Because of the potential for damaging the tundra, the work could only be conducted when there was sufficient snow cover and frozen ground. But damage from the previous seismic work, which was also conducted in winter, can still be seen today.

The proposal calls for the work to be done by a contractor, SAExploration, a Houston-based company that specializes in seismic surveys for the oil and gas industry.

In 2018, SAExploration, along with the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation and another Alaska Native corporation, submitted a proposal for a seismic survey in the refuge. But an environmental assessment of the proposal was delayed, and the plan was ultimately shelved last year.

Since then, SAExploration has declared bankruptcy and, earlier this month, the company and four former senior executives were accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of conducting a multiyear accounting fraud that inflated the company’s revenue by $100 million and hid the theft of about $10 million by the executives.

The new proposal is similar to the one released in 2018, although smaller in scope, covering about one-third of the 1002 Area. It also increases efforts to locate polar bear dens in the snow before the seismic trucks start rolling. Environmental groups and some scientists who study polar bears have been concerned that the seismic equipment could disturb or even crush the dens, which are the winter homes of females and their newborn cubs.

The proposal calls for using infrared cameras to detect the heat from polar bears in dens under the snow. But a study published in February suggested that the cameras were likely to miss some dens.