Public comment period opens on proposed ANWR leasing program

Dates still to be announced for public meetings in Alaska, Washington, D.C.

A 45-day public comment period begins today on new draft environmental impact statement for the Coastal Plain oil and gas leasing program.

The Coastal Plan was specifically identified in Section 1002 of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 for potential oil and natural gas resources, and for employment opportunities for residents of Alaska’s North Slope.

“This draft reflects thousands of hours of work that demonstrate a commitment to the development of these documents and the range of alternatives,” said Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist expected to be named acting Interior Secretary in the wake of the resignation on Dec. 22 of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Zinke is facing numerous ethics investigations related to his business activities, travel and policy decisions.

Bernhardt represented Alaska in an unsuccessful 2014 lawsuit filed against the federal government that sought to allow for oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

According to Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Land and Minerals Management Joe Balash, a 1987 Interior report to Congress fulfilling Interior’s requirements under ANILCA recommended the Coastal Plain for oil and gas development. Since completion of that report, numerous oil fields have been discovered near the Coastal Plain and oil field technologies have changed significantly, said Balash, a former chief of staff to Sen. Dan Sulllivan, R-Alaska, and former Alaska Commissioner of Natural Resources. “The depth of expertise in Arctic resources and issues from tribal members, state, local and federal agency staff was integral in developing a comprehensive draft environmental impact statement,” he said.

The administration of Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy also supports ANWR development, which Dunleavy said, “will be done utilizing the highest environmental standards and safeguard to protect its land, waters and wildlife.”


The Alaska Oil and Gas Association, which applauded release of the draft EIS, noted that the most recent government estimate put the average economically recoverable number at some 8-10 billion barrels of oil, and said it would inject billions of dollars into the state’s economy.

The Wilderness Society meanwhile voiced concerns that drilling for oil in ANWR stands to devastate the Arctic wildlife refuge.

Prior to release of the draft EIS, the Trump administration promised Americans that the people and wildlife that rely on the Arctic refuge would be safe from dangers that drilling would introduce, said Tim Woody, Alaska communications manager for The Wilderness Society.

The Wilderness Society then identified critical “low points” from the draft EIS, which they contend are a lack of real alternatives, excessive loopholes, faculty math on acreage limits, and ambivalence toward protecting people and wildlife.

The Wilderness Society also contends that many proposed stipulations and required operating procedures for caribou seem to be drawn heavily from the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, which is not the same as the Arctic refuge. Specifically, the refuge’s coastal plain is much narrower, with the entire coastal plain of critical importance to caribou lifecycles, so protective measures used to the west may not translate, the society said.

While Arctic Slope Regional Corp. has been lobbying for years to open ANWR to drilling, the Gwich’in people in northern Alaska and Canada, who rely on the Porcupine caribou herd for food, cultural and spiritual needs, remain firmly opposed to drilling for oil in the refuge, because of their concern for protecting calving grounds for the Porcupine herd.

Bernadette Demientief, executive director of the Gwich’in steering committee, has said that the 6,000 Gwich’in who hunt and raise their families in villages at the edge of the Arctic Circle fear that the herd and the culture that depends on them will not survive if oil drilling is allowed on caribou calving grounds.

The federal Bureau of Land Management plans to hold public meetings in Anchorage, Arctic Village, Fairbanks, Kaktovik, Fort Yukon, Venetie, Utqiavik and Washington D.C. at times and locations to be announced.

Comments on the draft EIS are being accepted through Feb. 11 at or by mail at Coastal Plan Oil and Gas Leasing Program EIS, 222 West 7th Avenue, Stop #13, Anchorage, AK 99513.