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US Interior sees Arctic National Wildlife Refuge lease sale as soon at July 2019: assistant secretary Balash

Anchorage — A lease sale in the US Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could come as early as July 2019, according to a top Interior Department official.

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The "scoping" process for an environmental impact statement for ANWR is now underway and will be completed in June, Joe Balash, assistant interior secretary for lands and minerals, told reporters in a briefing.

The draft EIS is expected in early 2019 followed by the final document in late April, Balash said. "We will hold the lease sale when the EIS is completed."

Balash was in Alaska to attend scoping meetings held in several communities including in Anchorage on Wednesday.



"We will definitely have a lease sale " because it is required by Congress in the Tax and Jobs Act of 2017, he said. "The law said 'we shall' have the sales.

"The purpose of the EIS is to inform the public and federal agencies on the impacts," Balash said. "In the scoping, we are asking people for advice on what kinds of impacts we should look for."

Interior is required to hold two lease sales of not less than 400,000 acres each in a 1.6 million-acre section of coastal plain in the refuge.

One of the problems Interior is wrestling with is how to deal with a limit of 2,000 acres of surface disturbance for development of any discoveries, Balash said. The limit is also in the federal tax act that authorized the leasing.

"We have to craft a way to deal with this in the lease sale " in how the limits on surface use will be allocated across tracts that will be offered, Balash said. "We have not yet determined a way to do it."

North Slope field developers have been able to minimize surface impacts using techniques like horizontal drilling but the acres used for drill pads, roads and other surface facilities could quickly add up depending on the areal extent of the underground reservoir.

Meanwhile, Interior officials are working on what kinds of lease stipulations would be applied in the sale. Balash said the stipulations used in leasing in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska on the western North Slope provides a model but there could also be special conditions in the Arctic refuge.

While the US Fish and Wildlife Service has overall management responsibility for ANWR the responsibility for managing the leasing was given to the US Bureau of Land Management in the tax act because of BLM's experience in leasing in the NPR-A.

An interesting aspect of the ANWR leasing is that private Native American landowners Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and Kaktovik Inupiat Corp. own the subsurface and surface rights to a 91,000-acre inholding in the coastal plain area.

Balash said that as private owners, ASRC and KIC are free to use their land as they see it, even holding their own lease sale and with no requirements to use lease stipulations adopted by the Interior Department for the federal leases.

"However, if a discovery is made any pipeline would have to cross federally-owned lands and environmental requirements stipulated by the Department of the Interior would apply," he said.

The only exploration well drilled in the refuge was on the private lands owned by ASRC and KIC. Results of the well, KIC No 1 drilled in the early 1980s by Chevron and BP, have been held confidential since.

The 91,000-acre enclave is in a central area of ANWR's coastal plain south of Barter Island, where Kaktovik, a small Inupiat village, is also located. A pipeline would have to be built west to connect with existing infrastructure at Point Thomson, which is on state lands west of the Canning River boundary of ANWR.

Point Thomson is about 60 miles east of Prudhoe Bay and Pump Station One of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System. A liquids pipeline has been built from Point Thomson to Prudhoe Bay to carry condensates from an ExxonMobil-operated gas cycling project at Point Thomson and crude oil from the small Badami Field, which is about 25 miles east of Prudhoe.

Exploration in ANWR has been controversial since the Arctic refuge was created by Congress in the Alaska National Interest Lands and Conservation Act of 1980. While much of ANWR, which totals 19 million acres, was given a federal wilderness designation the coastal plain was excluded from wilderness because of its oil and gas potential.

However, the 1980 law also stipulated that no exploration or development would be allowed until approved by Congress, and several efforts at gaining that approval over the years have been stymied by intense lobbying by conservation groups.

It was finally accomplished late last year when Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican, who chairs the Senate's energy committee, succeeded in getting the ANWR authorization attached to the federal tax act.

US Geological Survey estimates are that are coastal plain could hold as much as 9 billion to 10 billion barrels of recoverable oil.

--Tim Bradner, newsdesk@spglobal.com