Department of the Interior Seeks to Conduct Seismic Study in Arctic Refuge

The administration is quietly making moves to drill for oil in the vital habitat, putting birds, caribou, and other wildlife in danger.

The vast majority of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s 19 million acres is pristine landscape. But if you visit the refuge’s Marsh Creek area, you'll notice long scars that stretch into the horizon—bare ground where plants like labrador tea and cranberry have trouble surviving. These aren’t wildli­fe trails left by migrating caribou or the muddy remains left behind by feeding ducks. Rather, upon closer inspection, you’ll notice that these are tire marks.

This 1,250-mile trail is the result of seismic exploration from 1984–85, when the U.S. Congress sent trucks, drills, and vibrators to the wildlife refuge to determine whether there was oil hidden beneath it. By sending sound waves into the ground and analyzing how they were reflected back, researchers could visualize the earth below the surface. However, this involved large vehicles driving all over the Arctic Refuge.

“The damage from that seismic activity is still visible today,” says Kristen Miller, interim executive director of the environmental nonprofit Alaska Wilderness League. “You can still see the [truck] tracks. This is a very invasive technology, especially in such a fragile area.”

The same kind of damage might occur again, according to documents obtained by the Washington Post this month. Over the summer, the federal government asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to open up the Arctic Refuge for a new seismic study. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has until this Saturday to respond.

In the documents, the U.S. Department of the Interior requests that Alaska’s regional U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director reverse a 30-year-old regulation that protected the Arctic Refuge from oil exploration. The regulation has prevented oil companies from disturbing this vital habitat for many plants and animals, including birds such as the Red-necked Phalarope and the American Golden-Plover.

The request is the first step in a renewed effort by the Trump administration to tap into Arctic Refuge land for oil, a push that oil industries have pursued for many decades. This fall, with a president and Congressional majorities in power focused on expanding oil and gas development on public lands, they may have their chance. In the spring, President Trump’s proposed budget included $1.8 billion in projected revenues from drilling in the refuge. The U.S. House then included language in its budget that would open the door to drilling. (Update, Oct. 5: The House budget, passed today, would allow drilling in the Arctic Refuge.) The Senate is currently writing its own budget, and early signs point to including language on Arctic Refuge drilling to match the president.

Drilling for oil in the refuge would be massively destructive to the habitat. But even a surface seismic study, this first step requested by the government, can easily disturb the fragile ecosystem, a fact evident from the tire marks remaining from more than three decades ago. Worse, the Trump administration is looking to use 3-D seismic analysis rather than 2-D, as in the mid-1980s study. This new technology also poses new dangers.

“The 3-D technology is even more invasive because the trucks are bigger and they would have to move back and forth across the entire proposed wilderness area,” Miller says. “The wildlife refuge [is] home to a lot of species that are particularly sensitive to this type of activity.” This puts area wildlife, including birds like the Arctic Tern and the Northern Pintail and migratory animals that live on the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain, at risk. Birds from all 50 U.S. states raise young in northern Alaska's coastal plain ecosystem alongside species from all over the globe.

In addition to birds, the Arctic Refuge is an essential area for animals like porcupine caribou, which migrate to the area to give birth. Caribou is a food source and culturally important animal to Alaskan indigenous groups, namely the Gwich’in people, who have hunted caribou in the region for thousands of years.  

On the campaign trail, President Donald Trump promised to boost domestic oil production to increase job opportunities—which helps explain his aggressive push to open the Arctic Refuge to drilling. However, James Hamilton, an energy economist at the University of California, San Diego, says that although it might create an initial boost in jobs, most won’t be permanent. 

At first, there may be jobs created while developing the infrastructure, pipeline, and supporting services, he says. But those will last only several years, not indefinitely. “The direct jobs in oil production itself are not that numerous,” he says. “You're not talking about a big impact.”

Additionally, the economy isn’t exactly demanding more oil. Oil prices are low, and there is a strong supply of oil on the market, Hamilton says. “I don’t think there’s a press right now, given the current oil market, to try to develop more U.S. sources of supply in particular.”

Birders and conservationists are hoping Saturday’s decision will not allow the seismic tests to proceed. However, because so much of this request has not been transparent—the public wouldn't know about the seismic testing if not for the Washington Post report, for instance—it is unclear what the outcome will be and whether environmental and tribal concerns will be taken into account. 

“It’s definitely a very troubling effort that’s going on in the Department of Interior,” Miller says. “Very little information is coming out to the American people who care a lot about this issue.”