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Bristling over 'federal overreach,' Alaska officials plan to fight back

Alex DeMarban
The Mancha Pinnacles in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. USFWS

Two Alaska lawmakers are organizing a "federal overreach summit" to give residents a chance to detail perceived abuses suffered at the hands of the Federales.

The forum, proposed for two days in August, is another example of how state politicians are taking up arms against Washington, D.C., in a long-running feud that's heating up again on several fronts.  

Some $10 billion a year flows from the nation's capital to Alaska, making it nearly as important as the almighty oil industry that pays for most state services.

Yet the federal government often comes under attack, in part because its huge footprint in Alaska -- it owns nearly two-thirds of the state. That often puts it at odds with the state's development and access goals.

In a conference room in Anchorage Tuesday morning, Gov. Sean Parnell told reporters the state is going on the offensive in its decades-old dream to open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, brushing off a recent rejection letter from Interior Secretary Sally Jewell that said such a study was off limits without Congressional support.

Days earlier, on Independence Day eve, the Parnell administration issued a press release spelling out three areas where Alaska recently found itself under assault, and highlighted the state’s attempts to "push back" against federal agencies.

Several areas of conflict 

Parnell has gained a reputation for suing the federal government, and legal options remain on the table, officials have noted. But in recent days, the state has tried a more cooperative approach, firing off comment letters to agencies regarding:

•   The Pebble copper and gold prospect, where officials fear the Environmental Protection Agency will attempt to invoke a rarely-used power to preemptively stop the potential mine near Bristol Bay. In the letter, Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan challenges the agency's authority.
•   The Effects of Oil and Gas Activity on the Arctic Ocean. An ongoing analysis by the National Marine Fisheries Service could stop oil and gas development at more than 150 leases in state waters, the state fears. Ed Fogels, Natural Resources deputy commissioner, argues the agency hasn't meaningfully consulted with the state and is overstepping its boundaries.
•   Tongass National Forest. The state argues that federal policies have devastated the timber industry. To help bring mills, and the region's economy, back to life, Sullivan wants an exemption from the "roadless rule," a Clinton-era regulation limiting road development in national forests.   

The letters followed passage of a bill in April that declared personal firearms possessed in Alaska were free of federal laws and regulation.

For now, the state's biggest fight may involve the Arctic refuge, the nation's largest at 19 million acres -- and one of the least visited. The area atop northeastern Alaska has for decades been a flash point between Alaskans hungry for new oil discoveries and national conservation groups seeking to protect the Porcupine caribou herd and other animals.

Estimates put the amount of oil in the refuge at up to 10 billion barrels. By comparison, the nation's largest oil field, Prudhoe Bay west of ANWR, recently produced its 12 billionth barrel of oil after 37 years of production.

Parnell has argued that the 1980 law that expanded the refuge -- and essentially turned much of Alaska into a national park that can't be developed -- states that the Interior Department must regularly assess the refuge's oil and gas reserves. Yet the agency has refused to consider the oil and gas potential as part of a refuge management plan likely to be adopted soon.  

Enter the 240-page exploration plan, and application for a special permit, that Parnell's wing man on development, Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan, held aloft before reporters in Anchorage on Tuesday. He called it a "world-class" proposal that will meet the federal government's criteria for exploration.

Parnell had initially offered $50 million in state cash to pay for one-third of a three-year, government-backed seismic exploration plan. Then Jewell spurned him.

Now, Parnell says the state will go it alone. The law clearly states that any party can submit an exploration plan for consideration by the Interior Secretary, he argued.

'ANWR has not kept up with technology'

But Jewell, in her June 28 letter to Parnell, said the Obama Administration opposes oil and gas exploration in ANWR, and so does she. She added that Congress allowed "time-limited" exploration of the refuge's coastal plain, an effort that was completed in the 1980s.

Parnell argued that there is no sunset provision spelled out in ANWR or its associated regulations.   

The state's plan calls for seismic exploration using modern, three-dimensional technology, replacing the old, two-dimensional assessment used in the 1980s. Newer technology would improve the understanding of ANWR's oil potential, and could help inform the debate over whether Congress should allow drilling in the coastal plain, Parnell said.   

"For so long, we've been told 'no,'" Parnell said. "Yet as public lands managers, the federal government owes it to Americans and owes it to Alaskans to have scientifically based information upon which to make a decision."  

Or as Sullivan put it: "We believe the debate on ANWR has not kept up with the technology."

Sullivan said the seismic exploration would be low-impact, and conducted in winter to minimize damage to tundra. The plan now calls for Parnell to ask the Legislature to provide $50 million for the first year of exploration this winter.

The state would hire contractors to study the presumably oil-rich northwest corner of the coastal plain, an area east of Point Thomson where Exxon Mobil Corp. is ramping up to produce natural gas condensate. Two more years of seismic study elsewhere in the coastal plain would cost an additional $100 million.

For now, the clock is ticking, according to the state's view of the law. The Interior Secretary has 120 days to decide whether it will hold a public hearing in Alaska and approve the plan, Sullivan said.

Jewell's special assistant in Alaska, Pat Pourchot, said, "We don't believe we have the legal authority to have further exploration in the 1002 area."

Options for retaliation

As for other recent complaints from the state, Pourchot said meaningful consultation can be subject to interpretation, with the party that disagrees with an action believing it wasn't heard. But the state's comments are taken seriously.

"At some point a federal agency charged with making a decision has to make a decision," he said.

As for the "federal overreach summit," dates are still tentative, but it's currently being proposed for Aug. 11-12 in Anchorage, said Rep. Wes Keller, R-Mat-Su, who is calling for the event along with Sen. John Coghill, R-North Pole.

On the table for discussion will be everything from aggressive wildlife officers -- such as in the Yukon-Charley case -- to federal efforts that could threaten oil and mining prospects, he said.  

"The intent is to get people to talk about what they are dealing with and to document what they think is federal overreach," Keller said.

The summit would include a panel that discusses Alaska's options for retaliation, including collaborating with like-minded states to sue the feds.

This spring, the Legislature passed a bill proposed by Keller that calls on the state's attorney general to notify the Legislature if it believes a federal action is unconstitutional or was not properly adopted.

That would allow lawmakers to quickly get involved. In extreme cases, the Legislature could decide to nullify a law or regulatory action, meaning it's not a legally binding action from the state's perspective.  

"The worse thing in the world we can do is to take the approach of letting the government or the president do whatever they want," he said. 

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com