An internal Interior Department memo has proposed lifting restrictions on exploratory seismic studies in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a possible first step toward opening the pristine wilderness area to oil and gas drilling.
The document proposes ending a restriction that had limited exploratory drilling to the period from Oct. 1, 1984, to May 31, 1986. It also directs the agency to provide an environmental assessment and a proposed rule allowing for new exploration plans. The document, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, was first reported by The Washington Post.
The Arctic refuge, which covers more than 30,000 square miles, has been closed off to commercial drilling for decades because of concerns about the impact on polar bears, caribou and other animals in the region. Opening it up has been a top priority for Republicans. Doing so, even to determine how much oil is available, would be politically explosive and set the stage for bitter fights between the administration and environmental groups.
Congress has the final say over whether to allow new drilling in the refuge, often referred to as A.N.W.R.
“This is a really big deal,” Niel Lawrence, Alaska director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said. “This is a frontal attack in an ideological battle. The Arctic is the holy grail.”
With oil prices hovering near $50 per barrel, it is not clear if companies even want to drill in the refuge in the near future. But people who follow the industry said Saturday they thought the Interior Department’s proposal to allow seismic exploration was an important step in taking stock for the future.
“The last thing enviros want is to get a more accurate picture of the resources underneath A.N.W.R. because it could be extensive. I don’t think $50 a barrel is going to last forever,” said Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, which promotes fossil fuels. “What are they afraid of? What is wrong with learning more about what is going on? All of a sudden they’re afraid of science?”
Environmental activists assert that even advanced three-dimensional seismic testing can do lasting damage to the tundra and contribute to thawing of the permafrost. Moreover, they say, climate change has already led to significant changes in the area, like polar bears that are now more active on the coastal plain than ever before, because the sea ice they rely on is receding.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife, called the agency’s move “reckless and irresponsible.” Allowing seismic testing, she said, lays the groundwork for opening the Arctic refuge. “It’s like the camel’s nose under the tent,” she said.