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State seeks to advance plan for ANWR exploration

Posted: July 9, 2013 - 11:06pm

JUNEAU — The state of Alaska on Tuesday proposed an exploration plan aimed at determining the oil and gas potential in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

It comes just over a week after Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, in a letter to Gov. Sean Parnell, said a seismic exploration proposal suggested by the state in May is prohibited under federal law and would require congressional authorization. She also reiterated the Obama administration’s opposition to allowing drilling on the coastal plain of the refuge.

State Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan, during a news conference in Anchorage on Tuesday, said under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the secretary must approve an exploration plan if it meets the necessary requirements. He said he believes the plan the state is now formally submitting does.

Sullivan later made clear that Tuesday’s actions were separate from — though related to — what the state proposed in May. The earlier proposal represented an alternative the state believed should have been considered as the feds weigh a management plan for the refuge.

Jewell, in her June 28 letter, said the exploration authorization expired in the 1980s. Sullivan said that’s not his read of the law, and the responsibility will fall on the federal government to prove there was some sunset.

Parnell declined to speculate on what the state might do if Jewell denies Alaska’s exploration plan. The state also is seeking a special use permit.

State officials have seen the plan as capable of helping to reinvigorate — and reshape — the debate over whether to drill on the refuge’s coastal plain. Parnell has expressed frustration that the feds haven’t sought to assess the oil and gas potential as part of its management plan for the refuge. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman has said Congress must weigh in on any potential oil and gas activity on the roughly 1.5-million acre coastal plain.

“We believe the people of America deserve to know the value of the resources below ground in ANWR so that can be balanced with the value of the fish and wildlife resources on the surface,” Parnell said. “All of it — all of it — belongs to our people.”

The last seismic program took place in the early 1980s. In 1987, the Interior secretary at the time recommended development. Congress in 1995 passed legislation that would have allowed for drilling but then-President Bill Clinton vetoed that. Efforts since then to open the refuge for development have gone nowhere.

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, called the state’s proposal sound, and said the Obama administration is wrong in opposing drilling in the refuge. He said in a release that he would work with Parnell and other members of the congressional delegation in pushing the administration to allow for seismic work and exploration.

U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said in a release that regardless of one’s stance on drilling in the refuge, “Alaskans and Americans deserve to know what they own.”

An Interior spokeswoman said Jewell’s letter from last month stood as an immediate response to Tuesday’s announcement. The state says under federal law, the exploration plan must be published and made available for public review, a hearing must be held in Alaska and plans consistent with the lands act must be approved in 120 days.

Parnell in May proposed a multiyear, multimillion-dollar 3D seismic program under which he saw the state, federal government and private sector playing a role. He had told Jewell he’d need a “positive indication” from the feds on the plan before asking the Legislature for up to $50 million toward the program.

On Tuesday, he said he no longer envisions a federal partnership and is willing to ask the Legislature to put more than $50 million toward the effort.

The state is proposing “very low-impact state-of-the-art” three-dimensional seismic surveys from 2014 to 2017.

Pamela A. Miller, Arctic program director for the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, sees the state’s effort as an attempt to open the region to oil and gas drilling and thwart the purposes of the refuge, which include protecting wildlife and wilderness values.

Online:

State’s exploration plan: http://1.usa.gov/12k2YSf

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