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Court: AK must look at cumulative oil, gas impacts

Posted: April 2, 2013 - 12:00am

JUNEAU — The state is constitutionally required to consider cumulative effects of oil and gas projects after leasing, the Alaska Supreme Court has ruled.

The decision Friday stems from a 2009 leasing decision in which the Department of Natural Resources determined that oil and gas lease sales for the Beaufort Sea area were in the best interest of the state. A number of groups challenged the finding, arguing that the department had violated the state constitution by not fully analyzing the impacts of exploration, development, production and transportation activities.

The high court reversed a lower court ruling that so-called best interest findings are required after the lease sale phase, handing a partial victory to the department. But the court held the state is constitutionally required to consider the cumulative effects of an oil and gas project at its later phases, a victory for the groups.

“We agree with DNR that it would be unreasonable to speculate about possible future effects of the project before more information about the project is known. But this does not mean that these effects, once known, are not to be considered,” Justice Craig Stowers wrote in the ruling.

It wasn’t immediately clear what a cumulative impact assessment might look like. Stowers wrote it was not the court’s place to tell the state how it should analyze cumulative impacts.

He said that was the legislature’s prerogative, so long as any process complied with the constitution and the state’s responsibility to take a “continuing hard look — including analysis of cumulative impacts — throughout the course of a project.”

DNR was reviewing the decision. Spokeswoman Elizabeth Bluemink said Monday that the department already “carefully considers approvals of oil and gas development and conducts extensive analysis for each approval.”

Pam Miller, Arctic program director for the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, called the decision a “pretty big deal” and said it meant the natural resources department will have to look at the impact on factors like subsistence, land, fish, wildlife and waters.

The department has been making decisions about oil and gas exploration and development “with its blinders on for years” and it can’t do that anymore, said Brook Brisson, staff attorney for Trustees for Alaska, which represented Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands, Gwich’in Steering Committee, the Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity and Northern Alaska Environmental Center in the case.

Bluemink said the department was pleased the court agreed that there was no constitutional requirement for best- interest findings at each phase of an oil and gas project after a lease sale.

She said those findings can take more than a year to finalize, and requiring them at each stage would have “significantly expanded the timeline for oil and gas development on the North Slope.”

She said the department also planned to move forward with a proposal to consolidate its exploration and development approvals — HB129 in the House and SB59 in the Senate. The department says it would help streamline the state’s permitting process, while protecting the environment and providing the opportunity for public comment.

Miller said in a statement that the proposal — which she contends would reduce DNR analysis and public review — would violate the department’s constitutional obligation.

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