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Alaska Sues U.S. Over Refusal of Oil Exploration Plan

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Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
A caribou is seen at the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Source: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

March 15 (Bloomberg) -- Alaska sued the Obama administration over its rejection of a plan to explore for oil and natural gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as the state seeks a better estimate of the area’s energy resources.

Alaska Governor Sean Parnell said exploration in the coastal plain of the wildlife area was mandated by a 1980 federal Alaska land conservation act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refused to review the plan, citing a 1987 Interior Department legal opinion claiming provisions of the law had expired, Parnell said in a complaint in federal court in Anchorage, Alaska.

About one-quarter of the 40 billion barrels of onshore recoverable oil in the U.S. are in ANWR, according to a March 2013 estimate by the U.S. Geological Service.

“It is both disappointing and disturbing that the Obama administration, which claims that it is pursuing an ‘all of the above’ energy policy, is afraid to let the people of the United States learn more about ANWR’s oil and gas resources,” Parnell, a Republican, said yesterday in a statement.

The refuge, which stretches 200 miles from interior Alaska to the Arctic Ocean, is home to polar bears, caribou, gray wolves and 200 bird species.

The state is proposing to study a portion of the reserve known as Area 1002, which Alaska officials said covers 3,000 square miles (4,800 square kilometers) and is less than a tenth of the entire Arctic reserve. Estimates from 30 years ago put the median volume of oil in the refuge at 10.4 billion barrels, according to the state of Alaska.

Interior Secretary

Parnell sent a letter last year to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell outlining a plan for a shared $150 million effort. He offered to seek $50 million from state lawmakers, according to the lawsuit. Alaska’s plan would use advanced three-dimensional seismic imaging to find the “extent and accessibility of the significant oil and gas resources” in the coastal plain of ANWR, Parnell said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service’s regional director rejected the plan without evaluating whether it complied with regulations, according to the lawsuit.

The complaint names Jewell and the Fish and Wildlife Service as defendants. Jessica Kershaw, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Obama’s Opposition

The Obama administration opposes drilling in the refuge, which is about the size of South Carolina, and said any exploratory activity, including the seismic work, is prohibited by the 1980 law and would require congressional authorization, Jewell told Parnell in a letter last year.

Parnell claims the U.S. has violated the federal Alaska Interest Lands Conservation Act and seeks a court order forcing the government to review the plan, blocking it from applying the expiration dates it has cited and declaring its refusal to do so as “arbitrary and capricious.”

“The modern technology that we are seeking to use is responsibly utilized all across the North Slope with extremely limited environmental impact, and would dramatically improve our understanding of ANWR’s resources,” Parnell said in yesterday’s statement.

The case is Alaska v. Jewel, 14-cv-00048, U.S. District Court, District of Alaska (Anchorage).

To contact the reporter on this story: Karen Gullo in federal court in San Francisco at kgullo@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net Peter Blumberg, Andrew Dunn

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