Hearing set in state lawsuit seeking new ANWR exploration

The State of Alaska will have its day in court to push for oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Alaska U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason granted a motion for oral argument Nov. 21 on the state’s motion for summary judgment in its case lawsuit to force the Interior Department to approve a state exploration plan for ANWR.

The hearing will be held Jan. 20 at the federal courthouse in Anchorage.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Daniel Ashe denied the exploration proposal, submitted in July 2013, in September of that year. His decision was based on a 2001 Interior Department solicitor general opinion that the department’s authority to permit activity in the refuge expired in 1987 when a report on previous 2-D seismic exploration of ANWR’s coastal plain was completed.

The state is proposing a higher quality, 3-D seismic survey and has said it would put $50 million towards the effort. If results from a first year of work were encouraging, the state would seek partners for a second year.

Modern seismic imaging can greatly increase the success rate of subsequent exploratory drilling. Any drilling program would still have to be approved by Congress.

The state’s case is centered on language in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

ANILCA designated most of the 19.2 million-acre refuge as wilderness, except for the 1.5 million acres of coastal plain known as the 1002 area.

The Interior Department has argued that Section 1002 of ANILCA, which lays out oil and gas activity guidelines in the refuge, is silent on when its authority to allow exploration expires.

According to the State of Alaska, the wording is clear that the Interior secretary “shall,” as the law states, approve a plan within 120 days of submittal if it meets environmental guidelines.

The only timeline restriction in ANILCA was a two-year moratorium on exploration that began immediately after it was passed, the state contends.

In its reply to Interior’s opposition to summary judgment filed Nov. 11, the state says the department is wrong in its assertion that ANILCA is ambiguous regarding a sunset provision because it ignores parts of Section 1002.

The Interior Department claimed in its Oct. 14 opposition to summary judgment motion that Congress “implicitly left a gap for the agency to fill” in the wording of ANILCA.

Interior’s interpretation of Section 1002 is that it cannot authorize any further exploratory activity after the 1987 report to Congress was submitted.

“On its face, ANILCA is silent as to the deadline by which exploration plans must be submitted to the (Interior) secretary,” the department’s motion states.

The Alaska Native Gwich’in Steering Committee, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands, Alaska Wilderness League, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club and other environmental groups have joined the Interior Department as intervenor defendants in the case.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/18/2016 - 10:15am