WASHINGTON -- Concern that heavy machinery rolling across an Alaskan wilderness in search of oil would crush some polar bears to death stopped the Interior Department from approving a seismic survey in the area earlier this year.
But the alternative -- a low-flying plane making frequent passes over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- could still disturb polar bears, seals and calving caribou, according to conservationists and the Interior Department's own experts.
Despite the risks, the Trump administration has no plans to vet the environmental impacts of the planned aerial survey, designed to arm oil companies with geophysical data to help them figure out the most promising locations to drill, and how much they should bid. The Interior Department's hands-off approach is described in newly obtained documents and by people briefed on the matter who asked not to be named amid private deliberations.
"Low-flying aircraft can cause caribou to flee, causing disruption and harm during these sensitive periods," the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management said in an April 23 letter to CGG Canada Services Ltd., the company seeking to do the work. The agency also warned CGG of the risk that the flights could drive polar bears to flee the coastline -- a possible violation of U.S. law barring the harassment of marine mammals.
Scientists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also raised concerns within the Interior Department about the planned surveillance and urged more review because of the potential impact on protected animals, according to two people familiar with the matter. Those concerns have not yet been heeded.
Because the research would take place above federal land, not on it, the proposed survey doesn't require a geophysical permit from the federal government, the bureau told CGG. The proposed aerial research isn't bound by federal regulations that govern ground-based seismic surveys, like the version that failed to win a permit amid agency concerns heavy equipment could flatten polar bear dens and the animals within them.
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The geophysical study is a prelude to oil and gas development in the Arctic refuge, a priority for President Donald Trump and many Republican lawmakers. The refuge's coastal plain, known as the 1002 area, is thought to contain billions of barrels of oil, but tapping it was off limits for decades until Congress two years ago ordered the government sell drilling rights in the region under the premise it would raise enough money to offset the 2017 tax cuts.
The Interior Department plans to auction drilling rights in the refuge later this year. Deep government scrutiny of the aerial mapping plan could prevent the survey from being completed in time for the auction, depriving oil companies of new data on the location of potential reserves that could drive up bids and interest.
Right now, oil companies have little information to go by. Seismic studies about oil and gas in the refuge were last conducted three decades ago using less-sophisticated, two-dimensional technology. CGG's proposed gravity gradiometry survey would offer a richer look at what might be contained underneath the coastal plain, potentially filling gaps in the older data.
The proposed airborne technique requires flying over the refuge, with sensors measuring tiny differences in the density of underground rocks. CGG SA, which is promoting the survey to oil companies, would fly a predetermined grid pattern over the area, with tracks expected to be spaced roughly a third of a mile apart and at elevations of about 300 meters (984 feet). The work, which is likely to be conducted with a fixed-wing plane, could span an estimated 15 days, according to people briefed on the plan.