The refuge, which covers more than 30,000 square miles, has been closed to commercial drilling for decades because of concerns about the impact on polar bears, caribou and other animals.
An internal Interior Department memo has proposed lifting restrictions on exploratory seismic studies in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a possible first step toward opening the pristine wilderness to oil and gas drilling.
The document proposes ending a restriction that had limited exploratory drilling to the period from Oct. 1, 1984, to May 31, 1986. It also directs the agency to provide an environmental assessment and a proposed rule allowing for new exploration plans. The document, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, was first reported by The Washington Post.
The refuge, which covers more than 30,000 square miles, has been closed to commercial drilling for decades because of concerns about the impact on polar bears, caribou and other animals. Opening it up has been a priority for Republicans.
Congress has the final say over whether to allow drilling in the refuge, often referred to as ANWR.
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“This is a really big deal,” said Niel Lawrence, Alaska director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This is a frontal attack in an ideological battle. The Arctic is the Holy Grail.”
With oil prices hovering near $50 per barrel, it is not clear if companies even want to drill in the refuge anytime soon. But people who follow the industry said Saturday that they thought the Interior Department’s proposal to allow seismic exploration was an important step in taking stock for the future.
“The last thing enviros want is to get a more accurate picture of the resources underneath ANWR because it could be extensive. I don’t think $50 a barrel is going to last forever,” said Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, which promotes fossil fuels. “What are they afraid of? What is wrong with learning more about what is going on? All of a sudden they’re afraid of science?”
Environmental activists said that even advanced three-dimensional seismic testing can do lasting damage to the tundra and contribute to thawing of the permafrost. Moreover, they said, climate change has already led to significant changes in the area, like polar bears that are more active on the coastal plain because the sea ice they rely on is…