State of Alaska renews effort to search for oil in the Arctic Refuge

Patrick J Endres

Previous court ruling shut seismic testing down, but drilling advocates won't give up.

Joining the Trump administration’s assault on federal lands across America, the state of Alaska is preparing to renew efforts to explore for oil on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Despite a massive budget crisis, the commissioner of the state’s Department of Natural Resources Andy Mack recently told a reporter for E&E News that private funding—possibly from an Alaska Native corporation—could help pay for 3D seismic studies.

The 1.5 million-acre coastal plain provides vital habitat for polar bears, and is the birthing ground of the Porcupine Caribou Herd that sustains indigenous communities such as Arctic Village, where Gwich’in people refer to the coastal plain as “the Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”

Any form of oil exploration and development, including seismic testing, would introduce noise and machinery to this otherwise untouched landscape and could disrupt important breeding and migration patterns for polar bears, caribou, birds and other wildlife.  

Former Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell tried to launch seismic exploration four years ago, arguing that the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act required the U.S. Department of Interior to approve such plans for the Arctic Refuge. Former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, however, ruled in 2015 that her agency’s authority to approve exploration in the refuge expired in 1987 under ANILCA. Jewell’s decision was upheld by a federal judge.

Defenders of the Arctic Refuge worry that the Trump administration might interpret the law differently than former Secretary Jewell, and allow the state to begin looking for oil.

At the very least, the administration’s assault team is in place, and its members are well-versed on Alaska resource development:

Sen. Dan Sullivan, a pro-drilling Republican, was elected to the Senate in 2015 after first being appointed Alaska’s attorney general by former Gov. Sarah Palin, and later becoming commissioner of the state’s Department of Natural Resources.

Photo via.

Joseph Balash was recently nominated by Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke to serve as Interior’s Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management. Balash most recently served as Sullivan’s chief of staff and was formerly commissioner of Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

Photo: Joseph Balash is vetted at a Senate Energy Committee hearing. Credit:

David Bernhardt, Trump’s Interior’s Deputy Secretary, was once a key aide to then-Secretary of Interior Gale Norton and was involved in the doctoring of scientific findings about effects of oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, according to documents released earlier this year by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. When Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski in 2001 asked Norton for an evaluation of the potential impacts of oil drilling on the Porcupine Caribou Herd, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report was extensively rewritten in Norton’s office to omit and manipulate scientific information to result in a document more favorable to drilling. At that time, Bernhardt was Norton’s counselor and director of congressional affairs for her office. He was also retained by the state of Alaska to serve as its lawyer in the lawsuit regarding exploration in the coastal plain.

Photo: Interior Sec. Ryan ZInke (left) swears in David Bernhardt (right). 

With Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, up for re-election in 2018, he and DNR Commissioner Mack are aggressively pursuing the opening of federal lands in the Arctic to oil development.

As always, The Wilderness Society is committed to protecting the Arctic Refuge from oil and gas exploration and development. With the help of our partner organizations and supporters like you, we will fight tirelessly to defend the coastal plain from the state of Alaska’s exploration plan, and Trump’s assault on our federal lands.