A little over three years ago, the Department of Natural Resources recognized that the status quo for permitting wasn’t working.
More than 2,600 of our permits and authorizations were backlogged, to the detriment of many businesses and individual Alaskans seeking to access state lands and resources, and to the detriment of our economy.
In 2011, DNR committed to Gov. Parnell and the Legislature to drive down the backlog. In return, they supplied additional personnel and resources to DNR.
All parties recognized that new funding wasn’t a silver bullet to end the backlog. This is why DNR committed to undertake a comprehensive permitting initiative to make its process more timely and efficient — without compromising any standards.
We hosted eight forums across the state in 2011 to gather public input on the permitting initiative, and in 2012, secured a first set of statutory reforms that improve our process for land leasing and material sales. In 2013, additional DNR and legislative proposals to support timelier decisions for oil and gas projects passed the Legislature.
However, DNR’s efforts through House Bill 77 to increase the efficiency of our land and water-use authorizations did not pass last year. It is important to note that most provisions of the bill did not trigger wide opposition. However, three did, regarding general permits, water reservations and appeals.
DNR staff, along with legislators, met with the public and stakeholder organizations to look for ways to address their concerns about HB 77. We are pleased to support amendments recently incorporated by the Senate Resources Committee chair for consideration.
These include the following notable changes:
• The “notwithstanding any other provision of law” clause is removed to end concerns that DNR could trump other agencies in issuing a general permit.
• DNR’s authority to issue a general permit is limited to activities that DNR can already authorize through a permit under specific provisions of the Alaska Land Act.
• The process for establishing a general permit is clarified and defined to include public comment.
• Individuals, tribes and others will continue to be able to apply for water reservations.
• If the department approves a water reservation sought by a “person,” the certificate will be issued to an appropriate state agency. This ensures that public resources are managed by public agencies.
Nothing in HB77 reduces environmental standards or changes laws administered by the Department of Fish and Game that protect our fisheries and wildlife habitat.
However, some have argued in op-ed pieces and articles that DNR, through HB 77, is seeking to exclude the public from making public comments or appealing decisions.
To the contrary, if the Legislature authorizes general permits with public comment periods, and such permits are established by DNR, the public will be notified and given opportunity to comment on activities for which no notice was previously required.
Furthermore, we believe that appellants should describe how they are harmed, and this is why we have not sought to amend HB 77 provisions pertaining to a person’s eligibility to appeal.
We hope the amendments to House Bill 77 will remove the primary concerns that prevented its passage last year, but we are under no illusion that the state’s goal of increasing the efficiency of its permitting system is accepted by all.
This is unfortunate because many Alaskans are harmed by government inefficiency. The issue isn’t just private developers who navigate a large array of state and federal permits before launching a resource extraction project. Inefficiencies in the permitting process hurt individuals, small businesses and local governments.
Since 2011, DNR has cut its backlog of more than 2,600 permits and authorizations by more than 50 percent — not with a silver bullet, but a variety of actions that include investing in our staff, new business process management tools, and permit reform legislation.
Passage of HB 77 will be very useful as we continue our work to improve and modernize our permitting system while simultaneously striving to eliminate the backlog. We look forward to discussing the amendments as the Alaska Legislature takes up HB 77 in the coming days and weeks.
• Joe Balash is Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.