Environmental activists assert that even advanced three-dimensional seismic testing can do lasting damage to the tundra and contribute to thawing of the permafrost. Moreover, they say, climate change has already led to significant changes in the area, like polar bears that are now more active on the coastal plain than ever before, because the sea ice they rely on is receding.

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A coastal plain of the refuge.

Credit
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Jamie Rappaport Clark, president of Defenders of Wildlife, called the agency’s move “reckless and irresponsible.” Allowing seismic testing, she said, lays the groundwork for opening the Arctic refuge. “It’s like the camel’s nose under the tent,” she said.

According to the memo, dated Aug. 11, James W. Kurth, the acting director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, told the regional director of the agency’s Alaska office that officials had been told to “update the regulations concerning geological and geophysical exploration of the coastal plain, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.” The attached proposal eliminates date restrictions that the agency had imposed for submitting an exploration plan and moves to allow them “in any given year.”

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The memo does not provide a legal justification for allowing new exploration. In 2013, the Obama administration rejected an effort by Alaska to perform a seismic survey over 2,300 square miles of plain in the area, arguing that the agency’s authority to review and approve such plans expired in 1987. A federal judge in Alaska in 2015 upheld that decision, saying that while the law was “ambiguous” the administration’s argument was “based on a permissible and reasonable construction of statute.”

Heather Swift, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, declined to comment on the memo but referred to a May 31 event that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke held in Anchorage when he signed a secretarial order reassessing the current management plans of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It calls to update estimates of the amount of oil beneath the ground there.

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“I’m a geologist. Science is a wonderful thing: it helps us understand what is going on deep below the surface of the earth,” Mr. Zinke said at the time. “We need to use science to update our understanding of the 1002 area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as Congress considers important legislation to responsibly develop there one day. This order takes the important first step in a smart and measured approach to energy development in A.N.W.R.”

After the proposed rule appears in the Federal Register it will have to go through a public comment period and pass other bureaucratic hurdles — a process that experts said could take about 18 months — before companies could bid to conduct exploration.

Joe McMonigle, a senior energy policy analyst at Hedgeye Potomac Research in Washington, said he thought seismic studies increased the chances of opening up the Arctic refuge, despite low oil prices.

“If you’re going to reopen A.N.W.R., you want to have an informed decision,” he said. “I suspect it will increase the odds. It will show greater potential there and make it more attractive to companies.”

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