Alaska Editorial: State makes a point in suing over federal failure to consider oil plan

The following editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

Gov. Sean Parnell has taken the next step in the long-running, slow-moving effort to tap the energy resources of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain, an area that Congress decades ago recognized as having high oil and gas potential.

The governor on Friday announced that the state has filed suit against the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over those agencies’ refusal to consider the state’s plan for exploratory oil and gas activity in the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain of ANWR as required by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980.

It’s a good move and shows that the ANWR battle, although quieted nationally by an unfavorable White House and Senate, is far from over.

The source of the disagreement between the state and the federal agencies stems from a 2010-2011 Fish and Wildlife Service revising the 1988 ANWR comprehensive conservation plan, which deferred handling of the coastal plain to a 1987 ANWR resource assessment report that recommended Congress approve an oil and gas leasing program for the coastal plain.

The revision put forward by Fish and Wildlife officials didn’t include an oil and gas option but did include two options for Congress to declare the coastal plain as wilderness.

That, rightly, set off some alarms in Alaska.

The state submitted an oil and gas exploration plan in 2013 but was rejected by Fish and Wildlife. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said authority for approving a plan expired with completion of the 1987 resource assessment report required by ANILCA.

The big flaw in the secretary’s argument, however, is that ANILCA contains no expiration date for the authority to approve a plan. The process outlined for approval of a plan of exploration activity remains on the books.

So the secretary must follow through with the process, which requires that any exploration plan submitted for approval and meeting the guidelines get at least one public comment hearing in the state and then be approved.

That hasn’t happened.

Section 1002 of ANILCA authorizes “exploratory activity within the coastal plain.” It defines the activity as “surface geological exploration or seismic exploration, or both, for oil and gas within the coastal plain.”

And that’s what the plan submitted to the Interior Department by Gov. Parnell proposes: 3-D seismic testing to obtain up-to-date information about the coastal plain, which the U.S. Energy Information Administration describes as “the largest unexplored, potentially productive onshore basin in the United States.”

It is hoped, of course, that fresh and fuller information about ANWR’s oil and gas potential will convince Congress and a future president —President Obama will never do it — to allow oil and gas development in the coastal plain.

We’re arguing over an area that Congress has already recognized as having high energy potential. Refusal by the Interior Department and the Fish and Wildlife Service to follow a process that exists in law cannot go unchallenged.

The state seems to have a good case to make. Alaskans — Republicans, Democrats and others — should support the governor in this action.

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