Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation misses deadline for seismic work in Arctic refuge this winter

The Porcupine Caribou Herd in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on July 3, 2019. (Danielle Brigida via Creative Commons)

An Alaska Native corporation has missed a key deadline to search for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, according to the Department of the Interior.

Before it could get approval for what’s known as a seismic survey, the Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation had to make three flights to search for polar bear dens in part of the refuge.

But the corporation did not do the work before the Feb. 13 deadline, said a brief statement Saturday from Interior spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz.

It’s unclear what exactly happened. An official with KIC did not return requests for comment Monday.

The missed deadline effectively kills the corporation’s proposal to use seismic exploration to search for oil in part of the Arctic refuge’s coastal plain this winter.

It’s the latest setback for drilling proponents who have long wanted to see oil pumped out of the refuge in northeast Alaska.

Another came last month when the first-ever oil and gas lease sale in the refuge, held under then-President Donald Trump, attracted very little interest.

KIC was proposing to bring big trucks and dozens of workers onto the coastal plain to search for pockets of oil on part of the land.

But, to move forward, the corporation needed what the federal government calls an “Incidental Harassment Authorization” of polar bears.

In October, KIC submitted a request to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the authorization. The agency got inundated with more than 6 million public comments tied to the controversial request.

It had until Sunday to decide whether to give KIC the authorization.

Because the aerial work was not done, the agency told the corporation that its request “is no longer actionable,” according to Schwartz, with the Interior.

Environmental groups celebrated the news that KIC’s plan hit a major roadblock. They had raised concerns about it damaging the tundra and harming wildlife.

“The previous administration attempted to fast-track exploration on an unreasonably short timeline, so the fact that KIC was unable to do the work necessary to ensure the safety of threatened polar bears was completely foreseeable, and Interior responding by voiding the harassment request is the right move at this time,” said a written statement from Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League.

Any future proposals for seismic work will likely face steeper hurdles under President Joe Biden, who opposes oil development in the refuge.

On his first day in office, Biden directed the Interior Secretary to put a “temporary moratorium” on all oil and gas leasing activities in the refuge.

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