State and local districts continue their fight this year over the power to influence local development in coastal areas.
Lawmakers this session are faced with a complex bill - overwhelmingly supported by local governments in coastal areas, and opposed by the oil industry, the governor and the Alaska Department of Natural Resources - that would overhaul the Alaska Coastal Management Program for the second time in six years.
Development projects in coastal zones must go through the program, which does two things: ACMP reviewers coordinate federal, state and local permits; and they decide whether projects are consistent with state standards and local environmental policies.
Coastal planners from the North Slope to Juneau told lawmakers Tuesday they'd like the program to return roughly to how it worked before the Legislature-approved, Murkowski-administration-written overhaul in 2003.
They want more local control.
Murkowski's 2003 rewrite was aimed to promote development, and industry reps tend to support the current program.
But local districts like the North Slope and the Northwest Arctic Borough say they know of no projects that were held up because of the pre-2003 process.
Rep. Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue, introduced his bill in committee Tuesday with slides showing how drilling sites in Prudhoe Bay have burgeoned over the years, much of the development before 2003.
"The notion that we will stop development is not accurate," Joule said.
DNR doesn't support the bill because it would "override DNR authority," according to Division of Ocean and Coastal Management director Randy Bates, who participated in the 2003 rewrite and runs the ACMP.
He said the bill would favor coastal districts but wouldn't adequately represent other stakeholders, naming the state, industry, and the public.
"That's been one of the biggest challenges we have, trying to find the right balance to the program," Bates said.
Local districts lost control
A big chunk of the fight is over coastal districts' so-called local enforceable policies.
These policies are tailored to districts' "unique concerns." Juneau, for example, has pro-development policies regarding Special Waterfront Areas, where environmental regulations are looser.
Districts decide whether projects are consistent with those policies. The state has to defer to that interpretation.
The policies are local districts' most powerful hook into projects.
But DNR must approve those policies. And the department and the districts have been fighting for five years over how much overlap district policies can have with areas the state regulates.
"The district role was drastically reduced in 2003," said Teri Camery, planner for the city and borough of Juneau.
DNR says the policies can't be about anything the state already addresses, such as subsistence.
But the districts disagree with DNR over what it means to "adequately address" an issue.
Much of the combat is over local say on subsistence areas.
A statewide standard for subsistence says development must avoid or minimize harm to subsistence areas. The North Slope wanted to get more specific, to protect special subsistence areas. Planners wrote policies that restricted development in those areas during certain seasons, and banning some types of development outright.
DNR told them that because there's a statewide standard, the local policies couldn't address subsistence. Alaska's 27 districts ended up having a lot less say than they wanted. Several went to mediation, and a few districts have declared an impasse with DNR.
Juneau coastal district proposed 99 policies and got 14. The Northwest Arctic Borough proposed 50, most about subsistence, and got one, which addressed wind farms. Anchorage proposed more than 100 and got five.
Juneau planners retained some denied policies by incorporating them into the local land use code.
"That adds time and expense to the developer," said Camery, because they have to go through a separate review.
"Our plan was flat-out denied by the state," said Tom Okleasik, planning director of the Northwest Arctic Borough. "Our only recourse is to go back to the DNR commissioner," he said - who denied the plan in the first place.
Districts see the problem as a lack of check on DNR's power.
Their solution: Create a coastal policy board external to DNR, in the governor's office - five coastal district representatives plus the commissioners of Natural Resources, Fish and Game and Commerce - to approve coastal districts' plans. A similar council existed before the 2003 rewrite.
DNR acknowledges the districts' frustration about policies, but doesn't agree there should be an outside board. In its own draft revisions of the program, DNR suggested local districts could appeal to the Legislature, an equally controversial idea.
Mixed views from industry
The oil and gas industry says the current ACMP isn't broken.
"We cannot find any examples of when a coastal district's concerns were not addressed," said Steve Albuquerque of ConocoPhillips, who called the current process streamlined and efficient.
ConocoPhillips just wants a clear and predictable permit process, he said.
But not all developers are satisfied with the current program.
Redfern Resources Ltd., a Canadian company that is applying to haul a barge year-round on the Taku River south of Juneau, has complained about the process. Redfern first applied for permits in late 2007 and hasn't finished the process yet.
The project's original permit application was canceled by state ACMP reviewers when Redfern changed the tow vehicles for the barge. And it has been delayed several times while state permitters ask the company for more information on the project.
Redfern has not commented on the proposed bill, but has criticized the current permit process.
"If you review the historical notes with the legislation from 2003, it specifically speaks toward the purpose of the ACMP: to provide a predictable procedure or consistency review. And we're finding this process very unpredictable," said Tim Davies, Redfern's regulatory affairs manager, in January.
"We're talking about a very significant project," he said. "Over $300 million to develop the mine, and $24 million a year coming into the Juneau economy. Do we really want to have such an unpredictable process in place for making these type of decisions?"
Local districts promote the new bill as fixing that.
"The predictability industry wants would be in place, once the districts have policies," said Tom Loman, Anchorage city planner.
DNR's promised rewrite missing
DNR has been working on a revision of the program since February last year, when the Legislature was considering a similar coastal-district-friendly ACMP overhaul.
The state opposed that bill, too. Bates told lawmakers the state would re-examine the program with help from districts and industries, find consensus and produce its own bill for the next session.
So far, no bill.
This week, Bates said he couldn't rule out the introduction of a DNR-sponsored bill.
But the department doesn't see anything wrong with the current program - other than the "instability" resulting from coastal districts' criticism of it.
"We believe no change is necessary, particularly in the form of the bills offered," Bates said.
The department has been working with the districts since last summer. In November the department released a draft set of statutes. Bates on Tuesday characterized them as "conversational" and said it shouldn't be taken as the department's actual view.
According to local planners, the draft statutes further restricted coastal districts' ability to write policies. Some planners said they were looking forward to the state's final compromise - but without it, they're pinning their hopes on the current bill.
Palin supports DNR
Gov. Sarah Palin seemed to criticize the Murkowski ACMP rewrite in a 2005 campaign promise:
"I would ... revisit the change in regulations on the Alaska Coastal Zone Management Program in which the past administration by eliminating (sic) the rights of local districts to write specific local enforceable policies on important issues like subsistence," her campaign Web site said then.
Palin said at a press conference Wednesday that she's aligned with DNR on its ACMP stance: no changes yet deemed necessary.