In the winters of 1984 and 1985, exploration crews representing more than 20 oil companies set out to evaluate the reserves contained in Alaska’s remote Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Heavy tracked vehicles and ski-mounted trailers crisscrossed the snow-covered terrain conducting seismic surveys, a process that involves sending sound waves into the ground to pinpoint deposits of crude oil and natural gas.
These tests found an estimated 9 billion barrels of recoverable oil in the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain, also known as the 1002 area. But they also left lasting scars on the tundra ― “seismic trails” that are still visible more than 30 years later. Now, scientists and environmentalists fear the refuge will face a second round of damage as the Trump administration works to lift restrictions on seismic exploration in the refuge.
Michael Wald, an outdoorsman who has been guiding wilderness trips in Alaska since 1991, told HuffPost that trails are still easily spotted from the air and serve as “a symbol, a visual reminder, of the lasting impact and the fragility of the tundra.”
In 1980, Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which expanded the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to more than 19 million acres, but opted not to give wilderness protection status to area 1002 because of its potential for future oil and gas development. The law also tasked the Interior Department with studying both the biology and geology of the area, which culminated in a lengthy report to Congress in 1987 that found “an orderly oil and gas leasing program for the entire 1002 area can be conducted in concert with America’s environmental goals.”
Commonly referred to by its acronym, ANWR, the refuge is home to polar bears, caribou, moose and hundreds of species of migratory birds. Republicans have advocated for opening ANWR’s coastal plain for oil drilling for decades, without success. But late last year, GOP lawmakers passed a tax bill that included a measure from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) requiring Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to approve at least two lease sales in the coastal plain.
The Trump administration has also made opening the refuge a priority, part of its relentless push for fossil fuel-based “energy dominance.”
Oil production could be years off, if it happens at all. A key first step toward drilling, however, would likely be granting permits for new seismic surveys to give the industry better data on the area’s potential. That alone has many environmentalists and scientists worried.
Technology has advanced significantly over the last three decades, but today’s 3-D seismic surveys require vibrations be much closer together. (Instead of trails that are 3-4 miles apart, as they were in the 1980s, 3-D seismic lines are as close as several hundred feet.) And the impact this method would have on ANWR’s plants and soils “would likely be much greater,” according to a 2001 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) report.
The Alaskan tundra is extremely vulnerable, said Vladimir Romanovsky, a permafrost expert and professor of geophysics at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. He noted that simply walking in the same area over and over can change how heat enters the ground in the summer and trigger thawing.
And while there are stricter rules today than in the 1980s for seismic exploration on the tundra, the potential for machines to disrupt surface conditions and degrade permafrost remains.
The 1980s exploration affected areas with limited snow cover more than others. As seismic vehicles and tractors traversed the tundra, they disturbed soils and crushed shrubs, sedges and tussocks. In some locations, equipment broke through the insulating vegetation, causing permafrost to thaw, water to pool and changes in plant life. Some of those impacts, FWS wrote in 2014, ”are expected to persist for decades” ― though most areas did eventually recover. As of 2009, 5 percent of the original 2,500 miles of trails were thought to still be disturbed, according to a 2010 study led by a FWS botanist.
Future seismic exploration is largely missing from the current conversation, even as Democrats, scientists, environmentalists and a bipartisan group of former Interior Department officials try to stop development in ANWR.
In a November letter to Murkowski and other members of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, the group of former Interior Department officials said that “oil exploration and development risks significant damage to this national, cultural and ecological treasure, and it is currently a needless risk,” as a glut of oil supply and its low price make “economic arguments for risking this incredible resource ring hollow.”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acting director James W. Kurth has instructed the agency’s Alaska regional director to update a 1983 rule to once again allow for seismic exploration in the refuge, as The Washington Post first reported in September
A spokesman for FWS told HuffPost that all inquiries related to ANWR are being handled by the Interior Department, which did not respond to requests for comment. Several others involved in long-term monitoring efforts either did not respond or declined to comment.
For Steven Amstrup, who spent 30 years as a federal wildlife biologist in Alaska, seismic exploration in the refuge is most concerning not because of what it could mean for vegetation and aesthetics, but the threat it would pose to endangered polar bears.
To minimize the harm to both the ground and wildlife, seismic exploration is conducted along Alaska’s North Slope during the winter months, when this landscape is frozen and largely void of critters. But polar bears maintain a constant presence in the 1002, as it contains important habitat for pregnant mothers to den and give birth.
“Females in dens can’t just get up and move,” Amstrup, now the chief scientist for Polar Bears International, told HuffPost. “It’s a very critical part of their life cycle and a time when some kind of mechanical disturbance could become a significant disruption to the attention that a female pays to her cubs, or might cause abandonment of cubs. We don’t know.”
There are ways to mitigate these potential impacts, including using infrared to spot the heat coming from denning bears, says Amstrup. But it would take regulations and a concerted effort. And in an administration that has launched a dramatic rollback of environmental regulations, Amstrup questions whether that is a reasonable expectation.
Wald, the outdoorsman, shares Amstrup’s concerns about disturbing denning female polar bears. “I think that’s the real impending, traumatic cost of doing seismic exploration,” he said.
The coastal plain is also the main calving ground for the Porcupine caribou herd, a primary food source for the Gwich’in people, an indigenous tribe of northern Alaska and Canada.
Alison Kelly, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council’s land and wildlife program, was involved in an unsuccessful lawsuit filed in 2016 to block the National Park Service from allowing seismic oil and gas exploration in Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve. The nonprofit has since been documenting the impacts of that work, which Kelly describes as extensive and shocking.
“We objected. We litigated. We did everything possible,” Kelly said. “And they still went forward, and it was the disaster that we knew it would be. Despite all of these mitigation measures ― which I’m sure they’ll say they are going to employ in Alaska as well ― nonetheless it was all of the impacts to the vegetation, the soil, the hydrology.”
Despite being nearly 4,000 miles apart and completely different climates, Kelly sees many similarities between the coastal plain of ANWR and Big Cypress. They are both essential habitat for a diversity of plant and animal life, including many endangered species. And both are being eyed for oil and gas development.
“We’re talking about ANWR and the Everglades,” she said. “Those are very sensitive areas, unique areas, that people understand need to be protected.”
The GOP tax bill allows for 2,000 acres of ANWR’s coastal plain to be developed above ground with well pads and support facilities. Murkowski has described it as a “small” portion — just “one ten-thousandth of all of ANWR.” She said Alaskans have waited decades for the right technologies to come along in order to ensure the environment would remain protected. And she has swung back at accusations that she and other Alaska lawmakers are putting short-term economic gains over environmental protection.
“This is not a choice between energy and the environment,” she said during a Senate committee hearing in November. “We are past that.”
Amstrup opposes any oil and gas development in the refuge, arguing that the United States should be weaning itself off of fossil fuels rather than developing them. But if the decision has been made to explore and drill, it’s important that the public is aware and understands seismic surveys will present perhaps the greatest risk, he said.
“This is one of the things I think we need to be most concerned about as we go forward here, and hope that we can guide those who are directing this to minimize the impacts of this exploration phase,” he said.