ANCHORAGE - Environmental activists are crying foul over legislation offered by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski that they say would block any legal challenge to the recent right-of-way renewal for the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.
Murkowski filed notice late Tuesday that she and Sen. Ted Stevens, both Alaska Republicans, plan to offer an amendment to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act of 1973. The amendment, which would be attached as a rider to the 2003 omnibus federal spending bill, would eliminate the need for a major federal environmental review for a pipeline right-of-way renewal or extension.
On Jan. 8, Interior Secretary Gale Norton renewed the federal pipeline right of way for another 30 years after a long environmental assessment of the pipeline.
Murkowski's rider would block a legal challenge to the environmental study and the renewal, said Bob Randall, staff attorney for the Anchorage-based environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska.
"They're doing this with a rider under cover of night," Randall said. "It's a pretty sneaky way to do it."
Chuck Kleeschulte, acting press aide to Murkowski, said Wednesday the amendment would not eliminate the need for environmental review for pipeline right-of-way renewals. Rather, it would say that the environmental review finished last year was adequate.
Asked if it could thwart a legal challenge, Kleeschulte said, "It could, yes."
Federal officials sought a right-of-way renewal because the original federal grant, allowing the pipeline to cross 376 miles of federal land, expires in January 2004.
Alaska officials last year also renewed the lease for the pipeline to cross 344 miles of state land. The remaining 80 miles of the pipeline cross Native corporation and private land.
Last year, federal and Alaska officials held a series of public hearings around the state as part of the environmental review of the pipeline's past performance and risks it may pose to the environment or public safety in the future.
Randall and Richard Fineberg, a longtime pipeline watchdog in Fairbanks, said environmental and other activists were giving serious thought to a legal challenge of the federal right-of-way renewal.
Fineberg said the public participated "in good faith" in the environmental review last year, and now any further challenge could be snuffed by the Murkowski amendment.