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State appeals Interior denial of ANWR plan

Posted: August 31, 2013 - 10:46pm  |  Updated: September 1, 2013 - 12:06am

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell has filed an appeal to the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over that agency’s rejection of a state application to do winter seismic exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a state spokeswoman said Aug. 22.

The government has 30 days to respond to Parnell’s request for reconsideration, said Elizabeth Bluemink, spokesperson for the state Department of Natural Resources, the agency that would conduct the state-sponsored seismic work.

Parnell appealed a July 23 decision by Geoffrey Haskett, the Alaska regional Fish and Wildlife Service director, to reject the state’s application.

The appeal was made to Daniel Ashe, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It is not yet clear whether the state will go to court if Ashe upholds the rejection of the state’s proposal by Haskett.

Alaska has offered to pay the estimated $50 million cost of the winter 3-D seismic program, and to make the results of the survey available to the public.

“The regional director’s decision was both an inaccurate and restrictive interpretation of federal law,” governing the agency’s administration of the wildlife refuge, Parnell wrote in his letter.

The state contends that the Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act, or ANILCA, under which ANWR was created, allows for exploration activity in the northern coastal plain of the refuge, but that Congress must approve development of any discoveries.

Under the state’s interpretation of the ANILCA language, the U.S. Interior Department must issue a permit for exploration-only activity as long as it meets the guidelines. In his decision, the agency’s regional director contended that the authority to approve exploration has expired and that any activity, including exploration only, requires approval by Congress.

Parnell said the agency reached that conclusion through an interpretation of a legal opinion by the Interior Department, and that a plain reading of the ANILCA law would seem to require that exploration be approved.

If the permit is again rejected at the agency’s headquarters, the state’s next option would be to file a lawsuit in federal court, but state officials will not yet say if they will legally contest an adverse decision.

In a statement, Parnell said he believes senior agency officials will see things that way the state sees them.

“I am confident the director will take a hard look at the (regional director’s) decision in light of the state’s strong legal position and the enormous opportunity the state is offering to the nation in its exploration plan,” the governor said in a statement.

The governor said the scientific data that would be gathered in a low-impact winter seismic survey would improve the federal government’s understanding of potential oil and gas resources in the coastal plain area of ANWR known as the “1002” area because it was reserved in Section 1002 of ANILCA for study of its potential for petroleum.

Parnell said if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director rejects the state’s proposal and the decision is affirmed by the Secretary of the Interior, it is a signal that the current federal administration does not want to know about the potential resources.

“Fundamentally, the question remains, ‘Why doesn’t the current (federal) administration want to know more about ANWR’s resource potential?’” Parnell said.

In the letter sent to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife director with the state’s appeal, Deputy Natural Resources Commissioner Joe Balash wrote that the proposal conforms to President Obama’s energy strategy, “as well as an approach to the Arctic resource management that is grounded in modern scientific information.

“The state’s exploration plan (in the proposal) represents a real opportunity to put a federal/state partnership to work gathering such energy data in the Arctic. Furthermore, the state is willing to take the lead and provide financial support to gather this information to benefit the country as a whole.”

ANWR has been a hot-button national issue for decades. Congress has come close to approving exploration in the 1002 area several times and even passed a bill once only to have it vetoed by then-President Bill Clinton in 1995.

The Interior Department did allow a seismic exploration program to be done in the 1980s that was sponsored by several oil and gas companies who shared the data among themselves and the U.S. Geological Survey, which used the data in an initial resource assessment of the 1002 area.

The state’s proposal to use more modern, advanced three-dimensional seismic would provide much more detailed data on subsurface geology and prospective oil and gas traps.

Although the initial $50 million in funding by the state is for one winter of work, the plan includes a possible second and third years if additional money can be secured. If Interior approves the plan, the first year would focus on the western part of the 1002 area which includes the Marsh Creek anticline, a formation that may hold substantial oil and gas, geologists believe.

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