Concern that heavy machinery rolling across an Alaskan wilderness in search of oil would crush some polar bears to death stopped the Interior Department from approving a seismic survey in the area earlier this year.
But the alternative – a low-flying plane making frequent passes over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – could still disturb polar bears, seals and calving caribou, according to conservationists and the Interior Department's own experts.
Despite the risks, the Trump administration has no plans to vet the environmental impacts of the planned aerial survey, designed to arm oil companies with geophysical data to help them figure out the most promising locations to drill, and how much they should bid. The Interior Department's hands-off approach is described in newly obtained documents and by people briefed on the matter who asked not to be named amid private deliberations.
"Low-flying aircraft can cause caribou to flee, causing disruption and harm during these sensitive periods," the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management said in an April 23 letter to CGG Canada Services Ltd., the company seeking to do the work. The agency also warned CGG of the risk that the flights could drive polar bears to flee the coastline – a possible violation of U.S. law barring the harassment of marine mammals.
Scientists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also raised concerns within the Interior Department about the planned surveillance and urged more review because of the potential impact on protected animals, according to two people familiar with the matter. Those concerns have not yet been heeded.
Because the research would take place above federal land, not on it, the proposed survey doesn't require a geophysical permit from the federal government, the bureau told CGG. The proposed aerial research isn't bound by federal regulations that govern ground-based seismic surveys, like the version that failed to win a permit amid agency concerns heavy equipment could flatten polar bear dens and the animals within them.
The geophysical study is a prelude to oil and gas development in the Arctic refuge, a priority for President Donald Trump and many Republican lawmakers. The refuge's coastal plain, known as the 1002 area, is thought to contain billions of barrels of oil, but tapping it was off limits for decades until Congress two years ago ordered the government sell drilling rights in the region under the premise it would raise enough money to offset the 2017 tax cuts.
The Interior Department plans to auction drilling rights in the refuge later this year. Deep government scrutiny of the aerial mapping plan could prevent the survey from being completed in time for the auction, depriving oil companies of new data on the location of potential reserves that could drive up bids and interest.
Right now, oil companies have little information to go by. Seismic studies about oil and gas in the refuge were last conducted three decades ago using less-sophisticated, two-dimensional technology. CGG's proposed gravity gradiometry survey would offer a richer look at what might be contained underneath the coastal plain, potentially filling gaps in the older data.
The proposed airborne technique requires flying over the refuge, with sensors measuring tiny differences in the density of underground rocks. CGG SA, which is promoting the survey to oil companies, would fly a predetermined grid pattern over the area, with tracks expected to be spaced roughly a third of a mile apart and at elevations of about 300 meters (984 feet). The work, which is likely to be conducted with a fixed-wing plane, could span an estimated 15 days, according to people briefed on the plan.
Conservationists say noise from the low flights could disturb animals in the vast wilderness below, including polar bears increasingly spending their summers on shore and caribou in the middle of their prime calving season. Ringed seals could dive into Arctic waters to escape the sound, and startled bears could flee.
Representatives of CGG didn't respond to emails seeking comment.
More than a dozen conservation groups, including the Alaska Wilderness League, Natural Resources Defense Council and The Wilderness Society, warned CGG that it faces legal liability if polar bears are bothered by the proposed flights, and the company doesn't have a Fish and Wildlife Service permit authorizing that harassment.
"CGG's failure to obtain any incidental harassment authorization may expose the company to substantial liability and civil penalties," the groups said in a June 7 letter to the company. "Considering that proceedings to impose such civil penalties may be commenced up to five years after the offense, CGG cannot assume that the lax enforcement of environmental laws by the present administration will insulate it from liability – nor should it assume that such harassment would not come to light."
Interior Department spokeswoman Molly Block noted that "applicable Bureau of Land Management regulations do not require a permit for airborne geophysical data collection which do not have a ground component on federal lands." And, she stressed, while the Fish and Wildlife Service has recommended an incidental harassment authorization, the agency is not requiring it.
In a separate letter to the Bureau of Land Management, the environmental groups said the Interior Department's approach also could imperil Arctic oil development plans. The department has an obligation to scrutinize the survey flights because the impacts would come on top of other drilling-related activity, and federal law requires the agency to fully analyze the effects of planned oil leasing in the refuge, they said.
Interior's approach breaks with recent precedent. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which oversees offshore energy development, issued a permit for a similar 2018 CGG survey over Alaska's Cook Inlet, which CGG was to conduct for Hilcorp Alaska LLC. The Fish and Wildlife Service also issued an "incidental harassment authorization'' in expectation that survey would bother a small number of northern sea otters.
CGG's proposed coastal plain survey would take place at lower altitudes than recommended by the Federal Aviation Administration. The U.S. government's "Aeronautics Information Manual'' requests that pilots maintain a minimum altitude of 2,000 feet above the surface of national wildlife refuges and other protected areas. In a separate circular, aviation regulators warn that "excessive aircraft noise can result in annoyance, inconvenience or interference with the uses and enjoyment of property and can adversely affect wildlife."
An earlier plan from SAExploration Holdings Inc. to survey the refuge by land would have used diesel-powered vibrating "shaker" machines to send tremors through the ground. But government wildlife experts warned that polar bears hidden in snow-covered dens could go undetected and be crushed by the heavy vehicles.
Interior regulators were still considering whether the company could take enough precautions to ensure a "negligible impact" on polar bears – a legal threshold for permitting – when they conceded in February that the work wouldn't be authorized in time for the small seasonal operating window this year in Alaska's harsh climate.
Aerial surveys don't carry the same risk, but there's scant research on how polar bears are affected by flyovers. Steven Amstrup, chief scientist for Polar Bears International, said the timing of the proposed survey is critical. If conducted in July or August, there should be relatively few bears in the 1002 area, he said, and flyovers by a light aircraft probably wouldn't disturb them.