Study: Winter oil & gas surveys in Arctic Refuge leave lasting scars

By Woods Hole Research Center

Seismic survey vehicle (Photo: Alaska Dept. of Natural Resources)

Vehicles and equipment used in winter-time seismic surveys for oil and gas drilling can leave long-lasting scars in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, raising questions about whether existing regulations are sufficient to protect the Refuge and the indigenous communities that rely on its wildlife, according to new research published in the journal Ecological Applications. Despite requirements that surveys only be made during times when the tundra has a protective minimum snow cover and freeze depth, harm continues to occur, with miles-long vehicle tracks, some dating back decades, remaining on the region’s landscape and vegetation.

“We need to understand how oil and gas development could permanently change the landscape of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, especially as the Arctic warms faster than anywhere else on Earth,” said Dr. Anna Liljedahl, Woods Hole Research Center scientist and a co-author of the study.

The northern part of the refuge, 1.5 million acres known as the 1002 Area, is believed to contain oil and gas and has recently been opened to leasing. In preparation for leasing, BLM is considering a proposal for a wintertime 3D seismic survey that would create a grid of vehicle trails spaced 200 meters apart and totaling 63,000 kilometers in length.

One reason there hasn’t been sufficient scientific study of potential harms is that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) hasn’t required it. When Congress passed legislation opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling in 2017, BLM only required an environmental assessment – not a full environmental impact statement (EIS) under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) – to evaluate and permit seismic exploration activities.

“Winter tundra travel hasn’t changed much since the ‘80s,” said Dr. Martha Raynolds, lead author of the study and a researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Institute of Arctic Biology. “The impacts are going to be as bad or worse, and there are proposing many, many more miles of trails.”

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Read the study in Ecological Applications: