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Arctic Refuge Likely Won’t Be Surveyed Before Oil Lease Sales

An oil services company said Monday it had no plans to conduct an aerial survey of part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska this summer. As a result, there will most likely be no new information about any potential oil and gas riches in the refuge as the Trump administration moves to sell drilling leases there this year.

Environmental groups last month had objected to a reported proposal by the French-based company, CGG, to conduct the survey in July. The groups said that the work, involving low-altitude plane flights to measure gravitational changes that could point to potential oil and gas reserves underground, should require a permit from the Interior Department because of the potential impact on wildlife. The department had said no permit was necessary.

But in a phone interview Monday, Christophe Barnini, a spokesman for the company, said that there was never an actual proposal for a survey. “It was never really planned,” he said. “It was just a kind of open discussion that we had within the company.”

“Definitely the company is not considering that kind of work” in the refuge, Mr. Barnini said.

The Department of Interior did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

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Adam Kolton, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, one of the groups that had objected to the plan for a survey, said it was “a rare case of good news” that overflights would not take place. “The Trump administration showed no interest in managing the activity to protect the refuge,” he said.

The administration, undoing decades of environmental protections in the 19-million acre refuge, plans to sell drilling leases in a part of it known as the 1002 Area, which is 1.5 million acres of the coastal plain by the Beaufort Sea. The area is home to calving caribou, polar bears and other wildlife.

The United States Geological Survey has estimated that the 1002 Area could contain up to 12 billion barrels of oil, making it potentially North America’s largest untapped petroleum reserve.

But there have been no studies of the underlying geology of the area since a seismic survey in the 1980s. Only one well has ever been drilled in the area, in the mid 1980s, and although the results from the well have been kept secret, a New York Times investigation found that they were disappointing.

A project for a new seismic study, to be conducted by trucks traveling across the 1002 Area in winter, has been postponed, in part because of delays in getting the necessary permits to allow some disruption to wildlife. An aerial survey would have provided some information about the subsurface conditions, although such surveys are less detailed and useful than on-the-ground seismic work.

The lack of new information about the refuge’s oil and gas potential may affect the price of leases, which the Interior Department hopes to auction this year. The program to allow oil and gas leasing in the refuge was added to the 2017 Tax Act with the goal of adding $1 billion in federal revenue over 10 years.

Environmental groups had objected to the aerial survey in a letter to the Bureau of Land Management, a division of the Interior Department, in June. They argued that sustained noise by airplanes flying under 2,000 feet could have “deleterious effects” on wildlife, especially calving caribou.

In a letter to CGG in April, an official with the Bureau of Land Management in Alaska said the agency had “reviewed your notice of intent to conduct airborne geophysical activity” in the refuge.

Because there was no surface component to the work, the letter said, “we have determined that your activity, as proposed, does not require a geophysical permit from the Department of the Interior.” But the agency recommended that the flights be postponed over any areas where caribou were present until late July, when the calving period would be over.

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