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White House publishes new earthquake test plan in arctic refuge

The Trump administration has revived long-delayed plans to conduct a seismic survey in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in a prelude to oil drilling there.

On Friday, the Bureau of Land Management released a proposal to launch a seismic survey in December that would look for signs of underground oil reserves on more than half a million acres on the eastern side of the refuge’s coastal plain. The Bureau said it would accept public comment on the plan, proposed by an Alaska Native village society, for 14 days before deciding whether to issue a permit.

Environmental and conservation groups in Alaska and elsewhere immediately criticized the action, saying it would permanently harm the delicate arctic tundra and affect polar bears and other wildlife in one of the most remote areas. and the most pristine in the United States. They also said the quick turnaround meant a thorough environmental review would not be possible.

“The submission of this demand and BLM’s choice to act so close to the election shows how desperate the administration is to hand over one of the country’s most sensitive landscapes to the oil industry,” Lois Epstein , director of the Arctic program for the Wilderness Society, said in a statement. “The federal government is recklessly rushing in and irresponsibly denying the public the time it takes to assess the request and submit comments.”

The lands that would be studied are part of the so-called 1002 area, which the administration and the Trump Congress opened up to oil and gas development in 2017, undoing decades of protection. In August, the Home Office completed its review of plans to sell oil and gas leases in the region, saying the sale could take place before the end of the year. Environmental groups have filed a lawsuit to stop the sale, and so far rental sales have not taken place.

Area 1002 is believed to cover geological formations that could contain billions of barrels of oil, but this assessment is based largely on the only seismic survey ever conducted there in the 1980s. Only one exploration well has never been drilled into the shelter and a New York Times investigation found the results to be disappointing.

The new proposal, from the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation, would use improved technology capable of producing three-dimensional images of underground formations. This would involve the deployment of heavy trucks across the tundra in a grid pattern, along with supplies and mobile housing for a team of 180 workers.

Due to the potential for damage to the tundra, work could only be carried out when there was sufficient snow cover and frozen ground. But the damage from previous seismic work, also carried out in winter, is still visible today.

The proposal calls for the work to be performed by a contractor, SAExploration, a Houston-based company that specializes in seismic surveys for the oil and gas industry.

In 2018, SAExploration, along with the Kaktovik Inupiat Corporation and another Native Alaskan company, submitted a proposal for a seismic survey at the refuge. But an environmental assessment of the proposal was delayed and the plan was ultimately shelved last year.

SAExploration has since declared bankruptcy, and earlier this month the company and four former senior executives were accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of committing multi-year accounting fraud that inflated the company’s revenue by $ 100 million and concealed the theft of about $ 10 million. by executives.

The new proposal is similar to the one released in 2018, albeit smaller in scope, covering about a third of Area 1002. It also increases efforts to locate polar bear dens in the snow before the seismic trucks start to shoot. to roll. Environmental groups and some scientists who study polar bears fear that seismic equipment could disrupt or even crush dens, which are the winter homes of females and their newborns.

The proposal calls for the use of infrared cameras to detect the heat of polar bears in dens under the snow. But a study published in February suggested that cameras were at risk of missing dens.

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