The US Department of the Interior has begun preparations for oil and gas
leasing in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and will
use a new, streamlined procedure for its environmental review, a top Interior
official said Monday.

“We expect to publish a Notice of Intent to begin an Environmental Impact
Statement very soon. That will kick off a 60-day series of ‘scoping’ meetings,
after which we begin preparation of the draft EIS,” Joe Balash, DOI’s
assistant secretary for land and water management, said in an interview.

Balash said the ANWR Environmental Impact Statement will fall under a new
Interior Department policy of completing an EIS within one year and
limiting it to 300 pages. In the past, EIS documents have exceeded 1,000
pages and have taken several years to complete.

But if the EIS is rushed, it may provide openings for inevitable
lawsuits filed by US environmental groups. “If the review is done in a
way that circumvents existing laws and procedures, I’m sure our attorneys
will consider litigation options,” said Tony Iallonardo, spokesman for
The Wilderness Society, a major conservation group interested in ANWR.

“Our expectation has been that it will be very difficult for agencies to
complete the review and analysis needed for a complex issue such as
opening up [ANWR] to oil and gas leasing within such time line and page
limits,” said Nada Culver, Wilderness Society’s Senior Counsel.

“We expect quite a bit of litigation, and quite a lot of it successful,
coming out of this new policy direction,” Culver said in a statement.

Exploration in the 1.2 million acre coastal plain within the refuge,
considered highly prospective by geologists, has been a political hot
button for decades. Congress once granted approval, only to have
President Bill Clinton veto the bill. A second attempt came near to
passage under the second George W. Bush administration, but was defeated
51-49 in a Republican-controlled US Senate.

A provision tucked into the federal tax bill Congress passed late last
year granted approval and required the Department of the Interior to hold
two lease sales of 400,000 acres within 10 years. The US Geological Survey
has estimated the potential for discovery of up to 10 billion barrels of
oil in the coastal plain.

The Arctic refuge is the nation’s largest wildlife refuge, covering 19.2
million acres and extending south from the Arctic coast to the southern
Brooks Range. Most of its lands are designated as wilderness, but the 1.2
million acres of the coastal plain were kept out of the wilderness-designated
area because of its petroleum potential.

Balash said Interior has not yet decided whether to offer up 400,000
acres in an “area-wide” lease sale or to make smaller blocks available for
bidding. One problem is that subsurface information available to the
department is limited to results of one geophysical survey in the 1980s
that was done with older seismic technology.

“We expect to see applications for more seismic next winter,” done with
modern seismic technology, Balash said. The state of Alaska might
participate with a $10 million contribution to an industry group-led
seismic “shoot” to help get it moving, state natural resources
commissioner Andy Mack said.

Alaska has a stake in the leasing because it will receive 50% of bonus
bids and production royalties under the legislation passed in December,
Mack said.

The seismic survey could cost up to $80 million to $100 million,
according to industry estimates.

Balash said the federal government has estimated that its 50% share of
the first lease sale bids will total $1 billion, so the state would
receive an equal amount.

–Tim Bradner, newsdesk@spglobal.com

–Edited by Jeff Mower, newsdesk@spglobal.com

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