Disruptive Oil Surveys in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge Are Being Delayed Until Next Winter

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a national treasure.
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a national treasure.
Photo: Getty

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska will be safe from oil and gas exploration for at least another winter.


The Department of Interior is planning to start leasing the refuge’s 1.5 million-acre coastal plain to oil and gas interests this year. Seismic testing is supposed to give bidders an idea of the potential fossil fuel resources that lie underground. That testing was set to begin this winter, but the process to approve permits for the one company to express interest, SAExploration, got delayed due to legal requirements and the government shutdown, reports KTOO Public Media. Now, the company has requested to begin this process in December, instead.

Opponents are concerned over how seismic testing and subsequent oil extraction will impact the land and wildlife, particularly the Porcupine caribou herd that calves on the coastal plain. The Gwich’in people rely on the caribou for sustenance, and the animal culturally significant. So they’re celebrating this small victory.

“The coastal plain is sacred to the Gwich’in people and critical to our food security and way of life. It is no place for heavy machinery and destructive seismic testing,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, which launched in 1988 to protect the refuge from fossil fuel interests, in a statement. “When we stand together, we have the will to stop the destruction of the Arctic Refuge, and we won’t give up until it’s protected for good.”

The push to open up this pristine landscape to drilling has been in the works for decades. In the 1980s, seismic testing took place on the ANWR to explore its energy potential. The scars from those efforts remain today. You see, this process involves special thumper trucks that are equipped with heavy plating on their underside to send shock waves through the ground to map the oil deposits underneath. Regular trucks and infrastructure to house workers would accompany that intensive process, too.

The Interior Department is still planning on holding a lease sale later this year, per the New York Times, but this information would’ve better informed potential bidders about what they’re buying. Now, those bidders will have to hope that the available outdated data is true. Or they could leave the refuge alone. That’s what opponents, especially the Gwich’in who consider the land sacred, hope.

Earther reached out to the Interior Department’s Anchorage office for comment and will update if we hear back.


Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.


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If you want someone or something to get mad at about all this, get mad at Henry Dawes of Massachusetts (typical fucking masshole) and his stupid Dawes Act of 1887. It setup native land rights in Alaska. US purchased Alaska from Russia (Seward’s folly) around 1867.

One, among many, problems with Alaskan tribes is that there is only one official or legal tribal land area (aka reservation). In a nutshell, native Americans in Alaska are treated similarly to any other resident of Alaska as far as minerals (mostly oil and gas) royalty payments. Alaska (government and residents) depend on oil and gas royalties. And royalty payments to Alaska and Alaskans mostly come from oil and gas produced on state land.

Alaskan native entity locations:

Cool map is from Climate and Tribal Nations

Indian tribes on mineral rich lands with tribal mineral rights are sort of within the horns of a dilemma. Indian tribes in the US received about $1.1 billion from US Department of Interior for oil and gas extraction on reservations. The oil and gas wells owned by the Three Affiliated Tribes (or the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation) of Fort Berthold in North Dakota are producing about 310,000 barrels per day. The annualized value of that oil based on present spot price is around $6 billion per year. Of course lease holders only get about 18% of that. And that doesn’t include gas.

I believe AOC became inspired as an activist after visiting Fort Berthold and seeing all those well jacks pumping away. Or maybe it was the other reservation downstream of Fort Berthold. I can’t remember.

My suggestion is to make sure Alaskan tribes are at least getting justice in terms of oil and gas royalty payments. They’re kinda getting fucked, IMHO. Those living along the coast should be compensated for offshore production offshore of their coastal homes. Then worry about climate lawsuits. Nobody wins lawsuits except lawyers.