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US Interior Department to begin ANWR leasing preparations

The US Department of the Interior has begun preparations for oil and gasleasing in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and willuse a new, streamlined procedure for its environmental review, a top Interiorofficial said Monday.

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"We expect to publish a Notice of Intent to begin an Environmental ImpactStatement very soon. That will kick off a 60-day series of 'scoping' meetings,after which we begin preparation of the draft EIS," Joe Balash, DOI'sassistant secretary for land and water management, said in an interview.

Balash said the ANWR Environmental Impact Statement will fall under a newInterior Department policy of completing an EIS within one year andlimiting it to 300 pages. In the past, EIS documents have exceeded 1,000pages and have taken several years to complete.

But if the EIS is rushed, it may provide openings for inevitablelawsuits filed by US environmental groups. "If the review is done in away that circumvents existing laws and procedures, I'm sure our attorneyswill consider litigation options," said Tony Iallonardo, spokesman forThe Wilderness Society, a major conservation group interested in ANWR.

"Our expectation has been that it will be very difficult for agencies tocomplete the review and analysis needed for a complex issue such asopening up [ANWR] to oil and gas leasing within such time line and pagelimits," said Nada Culver, Wilderness Society's Senior Counsel.

"We expect quite a bit of litigation, and quite a lot of it successful,coming out of this new policy direction," Culver said in a statement.

Exploration in the 1.2 million acre coastal plain within the refuge,considered highly prospective by geologists, has been a political hotbutton for decades. Congress once granted approval, only to havePresident Bill Clinton veto the bill. A second attempt came near topassage under the second George W. Bush administration, but was defeated51-49 in a Republican-controlled US Senate.

A provision tucked into the federal tax bill Congress passed late last year granted approval and required the Department of the Interior to hold two lease sales of 400,000 acres within 10 years. The US Geological Survey has estimated the potential for discovery of up to 10 billion barrels of oil in the coastal plain.

The Arctic refuge is the nation's largest wildlife refuge, covering 19.2million acres and extending south from the Arctic coast to the southernBrooks Range. Most of its lands are designated as wilderness, but the 1.2million acres of the coastal plain were kept out of the wilderness-designated area because of its petroleum potential.

Balash said Interior has not yet decided whether to offer up 400,000acres in an "area-wide" lease sale or to make smaller blocks available forbidding. One problem is that subsurface information available to thedepartment is limited to results of one geophysical survey in the 1980sthat was done with older seismic technology.

"We expect to see applications for more seismic next winter," done withmodern seismic technology, Balash said. The state of Alaska mightparticipate with a $10 million contribution to an industry group-ledseismic "shoot" to help get it moving, state natural resourcescommissioner Andy Mack said.

Alaska has a stake in the leasing because it will receive 50% of bonusbids and production royalties under the legislation passed in December,Mack said.

The seismic survey could cost up to $80 million to $100 million,according to industry estimates.

Balash said the federal government has estimated that its 50% share ofthe first lease sale bids will total $1 billion, so the state wouldreceive an equal amount. --Tim Bradner, newsdesk@spglobal.com

--Edited by Jeff Mower, newsdesk@spglobal.com