Three corporations have filed proposals to start seismic exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the first step toward drilling for oil and gas on this once-protected section of the North Slope of Alaska. This move comes after Republicans opened the refuge to energy production last fall.

The question of whether to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) has been an ongoing political controversy in the United States for more than 40 years. Through the end of 2017, Republicans attempted to allow drilling in ANWR almost 50 times, finally succeeding with the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, when Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), attached an amendment to the bill opening what’s called 1002 Area for energy exploration.

Kuukpik Corporation, a joint venture of SAExploration, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, and the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation, want to conduct seismic tests in December in the entire 1002 Area as well as on private Native Alaskan lands outside of it. Altogether, the area would encompass 2,602 square miles, or the entire 1.5-million-acre coastal plain.


Despite the Trump Administration’s eagerness to pull oil out of ANWW—the Interior Department wants drilling to begin within the next year—the seismic proposal was slammed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“This plan is not adequate,” FWS said. It shows “a lack of applicable details for proper agency review.”

The proposal did not take into account the impact of explosive testing on wildlife, the tundra, or waterways, FWS said.


“One thing is pretty notable: how many inaccuracies and missing pieces of information there are,” Peter Nelson, director of federal lands at the advocacy group Defenders of Wildlife, told the Washington Post, “It really provides more evidence that industry and the Trump administration are being pretty reckless with this process.”

The Alaska Wilderness League said in a statement, “The scars of the 2-D seismic testing completed on the coastal plain in 1984 and 1985 are still visible 30 years later. Modern seismic exploration, however, is done using a 3-D technique that requires a much denser grid of trails – the 1984-85 trails on the coastal plain were approximately four miles apart, while the 3-D seismic trails envisioned here would be a mere 660 feet apart. Seismic activities would involve convoys of 30-ton thumper trucks and bulldozers traveling over extensive areas of fragile tundra. These intrusive surface exploration activities – typically employed year after year throughout the life of an oil field – would cause severe and long-lasting damage to the Arctic Refuge.”

Among other potential conflicts, exploration could impact polar bears, which are increasingly using the coastal plain for denning. The Southern Beaufort Sea population of bears dropped 40 percent in the decade after the new millennium. There are just 900 bears left, and the population’s status is now listed as threatened. The proposal did not address the impact of hundreds of workers and seismic explosions on the bears, the porcupine caribou, or the migratory birds that call this area home.

“This is the polar opposite of what was promised by drilling proponents,” said Adam Kolton, executive director at Alaska Wilderness League. “Instead of a small footprint and a careful process, they want to deploy a small army of industrial vehicles and equipment with a mandate to crisscross every square inch of the Refuge’s biological heart. This scheme will put denning polar bears at risk and leave lasting scars on the fragile tundra and its vegetation, and that’s before a single drill rig has been placed or length of pipeline installed.”


The stakes are high for this sensitive environment. According to Representative Jared Huffman, Democrat from California, “The Department of the Interior estimates a 75 percent chance of one or more large oil spills as a result of drilling in the Arctic Ocean. Should an oil spill occur, between 44 percent and 62 percent of spilled crude oil would remain in open water or broken ice longer than 30 days, neither dispersing nor evaporating.”

Huffman recently introduced the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act, which repeal the 2017 opening of the refuge to drilling. Although it has multiple sponsors in the House, it stands almost no chance of moving forward.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

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