Juneau, Alaska (AP) -- The state of Alaska on Monday proposed a multiyear, multimillion-dollar plan aimed at determining the true oil and gas potential in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
State officials hope the plan will reinvigorate — and reshape — the debate over whether to drill on the refuge's coastal plain.
The plan was announced at an event hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for 21st Century Energy in Washington, D.C., by Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell and Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan. Parnell appeared by remote.
Parnell, in a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, said he is prepared to ask the state Legislature for $50 million toward funding the seismic program if the federal government is in as a partner. He also sees the private sector playing a role as well.
"For 26 years, Americans have engaged in a debate about the wildlife and oil and gas resources on and underneath the 1002 Area. Unfortunately, ANWR's oil and gas resources have been estimated using archaic 2D seismic data," he said in the letter, dated Saturday. The 1002 area refers to the coastal plain.
"State of Alaska land managers have found that 3D seismic data is an indispensable tool to managing our lands," he said. "We believe that it would be very valuable for your land managers to have this data to inform their planning efforts for the 1002 Area."
Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Cathy Rezabeck did not say whether Interior is interested in the plan but said Congress must weigh in on any potential oil and gas activity on the roughly 1.5-million acre coastal plain.
The last seismic program took place in the early 1980s, and in 1987, the Interior secretary recommended development. Congress in 1995 passed legislation that would have allowed for drilling but that was vetoed by then-President Bill Clinton. Efforts since then aimed at opening ANWR for development — supported by state political leaders and members of Alaska's congressional delegation — have gone nowhere.
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said opening the refuge for drilling "has been a top priority for me and most Alaskans because it is a critical part of a comprehensive national energy plan." Having modern, 3-D seismic information available would help inform the debate, he said in a release.
U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said he hopes Jewell "takes this good faith effort" by the state into consideration as Interior updates its plan for refuge.
Pamela A. Miller, Arctic program director for the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, called the state's plan a "recycled bad idea" aimed at opening the refuge to drilling.
"There's no point in exploring for a resource that cannot be developed today and should not be developed because of the values of this remarkable land for wildlife, people and human cultures," she said.
Between the coastal plain, adjacent state lands and Alaska Native in-holdings, the U.S. Geological Survey has estimated the mean volume of recoverable oil of about 10.4 billion barrels, though that has a wide range of uncertainty. Natural Resources Commissioner Sullivan said officials could get an "almost definitive" number that Congress then can debate under the state's plan, which would span at least seven years.
Alaska released its proposal Monday ahead of the anticipated release of Fish and Wildlife's updated conservation plan for the refuge. Rezabeck said she did not know when the federal report might be released.
Sullivan said the state is stepping up out of frustration and a sense of responsibility. He said there's frustration with the U.S. Interior Department's apparent refusal to contemplate or study the oil and gas potential in the region so the state is doing the feds' work for them. With the exception of the federal government, the state is the only entity with the expertise and experience to put forth this kind of plan, he said.
"Again, the frustration here is why wouldn't you want to know? ... Why wouldn't the American people want to know what is under their land?" he said. "It's not the Department of Interior's land. It's our land."
Sullivan said the plan is modest and reasonable and should attract bipartisan support. He and Parnell said it should have minimal impact on the surrounding environment since it proposes seismic surveying and drilling in winter — making use of things like ice roads — and envisions use of newer technologies.
Miller said the prior seismic program had a lasting impact on vegetation and permafrost.