Kaktovik Iñupiat Corp. misses key deadline for seismic work in Arctic refuge this winter

a herd of caribouo eat grass in some rolling hills
The Porcupine Caribou Herd in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on July 3, 2019. (Danielle Brigida/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 a deadline of Feb. 13, according to a brief statement Saturday from Interior spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz.

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

The missed deadline effectively kills the corporation’s proposal to use seismic to look 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 former President Donald Trump, attracted very little interest.

The sale followed the passage of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which opened the refuge’s coastal plain to drilling after decades of debate.

RELATED: Arctic refuge lease sale goes bust, as major oil companies skip out

KIC is the corporation for the village of Kaktovik — the only community within the refuge’s boundaries, and a place where many Inupiat leaders support oil development.

The corporation was proposing to bring big trucks and dozens of workers onto part of the coastal plain this winter to search for pockets of oil using seismic technology. The only seismic data ever collected from the coastal plain is old — from the 1980s.

A giant truck on snowy land.
This is the type of vehicle — called a vibe truck — that companies use to do seismic surveys. The heavy trucks roll back and forth across the tundra and vibrate the ground. The sonic energy travels below the ground, echoes off rocks and bounces back to the surface. Companies use the data to find pockets of oil. (Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

But for KIC to move forward with the work, it needed approvals from the federal government, including an “Incidental Harassment Authorization” of polar bears.

In August, KIC submitted a request to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the authorization, and the corporation updated it two months later.

Fish and Wildlife was inundated with more than six million public comments tied to the request.

It had until Sunday to decide whether to give KIC the authorization. The corporation also needed approval from the Bureau of Land Management, and it was up against the deadline for its flights.

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

RELATED: The lease sale is set, but how much oil actually is under ANWR’s coastal plain?

Environmental groups celebrated the news of KIC’s plan hitting a major roadblock.

“This is great news for Alaska’s polar bears, which can sleep a little easier in their dens this winter knowing that the threat of seismic disturbance is on ice for a while,” said a written statement from Adam Kolton, executive director of Alaska Wilderness League.

The Alaska Wilderness League and other environmental groups had criticized the Trump administration’s timeline for approving the seismic work, saying it was too fast, and had also raised concerns about the heavy trucks damaging the tundra and harming wildlife.

Any future proposals for seismic work will likely face steeper hurdles under President Joe Biden who opposes oil development in Alaska’s Arctic 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.

RELATED: Biden immediately slams the brakes on oil drilling in Arctic refuge

Reach reporter Tegan Hanlon at thanlon@alaskapublic.org or 907-550-8447.