After getting a “no” from the Department of the Interior, Gov. Sean Parnell has doubled down on a plan to conduct seismic testing in a section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Yesterday, the administration offered a new plan, pledged more money to the effort, and argued that the federal government was legally obligated to consider their proposal. But already, there are questions over whether this is just another round in a decades-long game of chicken between the state and federal government.
In the second press conference in as many months, Gov. Sean Parnell reaffirmed his commitment to finding out just how much oil there is in the refuge.
“It’s important for Alaska and our country not just to be on defense, but to go on offense. That’s why we’ve moved into the second phase of our ANWR policy.”
The phase he’s referring to involves pushing harder on the federal government to allow 3D seismic testing inside a section of coastal plain called the “1002 area.”
Parnell introduced a testing plan in May, and the initial idea had been for the state, federal government, and industry to team up and conduct winter studies of the area over the next three years. It would have cost about $150 million, with the governor proposing the state pay for up to a third of that. But in late June, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejected that plan, saying that the window for doing seismic work in ANWR closed in the 1980s.
That’s where the change in the governor’s strategy comes in. The Parnell administration is now charging that Jewell’s interpretation of the law is wrong, and that the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act obligates the federal government to review their plan and offer an answer in 120 days. And they’ve offered a new plan that would have the state shoulder most if not all of the financial burden at the start.
“This is not meant to be a partnership with the federal government at this point,” says Parnell.
Whether the Department of the Interior will even consider the new plan is unclear. Spokesperson Jessica Kershaw says the Secretary remains opposed to oil exploration and seismic testing within the refuge, but that they can’t speculate on a plan they haven’t seen and a permit application they haven’t reviewed.
Meanwhile, environmental groups opposed to development in ANWR are skeptical that the governor’s plan to conduct seismic testing has any chance of moving forward. Lydia Weiss works for the Alaska Wilderness League, and she calls it a “non-starter.”
“This is a policy that is not supported by Congress, not supported by the President, not supported by Secretary Jewell, and not supported by vast majorities of Americans. So why waste time, and resources, and money going over this?”
For his part, Parnell was vague on what the state would do if the federal government blocked his plan, but didn’t rule out litigation.
“We will cross the bridge of what we do in response to a negative — or a decline — by the Secretary if and when she gets to that point. But I am not going to be able to speculate on that right now.”
The last time the federal government seriously considered development in ANWR was in 1995, when Congress voted in favor of drilling but was ultimately vetoed by President Bill Clinton.
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