"Today, the state goes on the offensive," Gov. Sean Parnell said Thursday, kicking off a press conference about his administration's all-out fight with the feds over what he perceives as misuse of the Endangered Species Act.
Parnell's battle cry is the impact to industry, and by extension jobs, that can occur in the effort to protect a particular species.
Thursday, Parnell announced that the state of Alaska, in coordination with the states of Washington and Oregon, will push to have the eastern population of the Steller sea lion delisted as threatened under the ESA. The effort is meant to protect people, fisheries and coastlines in the wide area sea lions roam.
The eastern population has rebounded, according to Parnell's administration. Where the sea lions number 45,000 to 60,000 today, in the 1980s there were only 15,000 to 20,000, said Attorney General Dan Sullivan, who is looking to add another attorney to his staff to work exclusively on fighting federal encroachment in Alaska under the ESA.
In a related action, Parnell announced the state is also opposed to heightened protections for the western population of sea lions. A recent assessment by the National Marine Fisheries Service concluded that commercial fisheries are hurting the species' ability to recover.
"The federal government wants to close large areas of the Aleutian (islands) to fishing," Parnell said. "We opposed such a drastic and harmful approach."
The state argues there is no clear evidence that western sea lions are suffering nutritional stress. There isn't enough evidence to say a shortage of cod and mackerel is causing sea lions to go hungry and therefore deliver fewer pups, according to Doug Vincent-Lang of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, who attended Wednesday's briefing alongside Sullivan and Parnell. The state also believes NMFS inappropriately used only two out of seven units within the western sea lion population as the gauge by which to make its findings. And the overall health of the larger population doesn't merit fishing restrictions, Sullivan said.
Although the sea lion was the only marine mammal on the table at Thursday's press conference, it's not the only animal with whose protected status Parnell takes issue. The state is also fighting designation of Cook Inlet beluga whales as threatened, and recent filings in that case indicate at least one oil and gas company -- Escopeta Oil -- is already suffering as a result.
This week, Escopeta filed to join the beluga lawsuit. Uncertainty about what new regulations may be imposed on industry in order to protect the whales is thwarting the company's ability to meet its obligations and timelines under lease agreements with the state, according to court filings.
Escopeta is hoping to be the first company to take advantage of lucrative state tax incentives to mobilize equipment to Cook Inlet and start drilling. But it claims the prospect is an expensive one -- $30 million to date -- and potential partners are wary of hurdles the beluga's endangered designation may bring.
In its filing, Escopeta describes how a Spanish company that had planned to send one of its heavy ships to help haul in a jack-up rig (a mobile offshore drilling platform raised high enough above the surface of the water to not be impacted by waves) backed out over the whale issue, as have additional partners. Potential restrictions on the types of structures that can be built in service to exploration and development, noise levels, and times of year when activity can take place all give future investors pause, the company said.
Escopeta also states it had, earlier this summer, been in negotiations with Apache Corp. in which the beluga designation came up as a potential problem. Apache and Escopeta never struck a deal, although precisely why isn't clear, particularly since Apache has stated it doesn't view the beluga designation as a major hurdle, according to statements made by company officials during a visit with reporters in Anchorage late last month.
Still, Escopeta's complaints seem to play to very points Parnell and his administration are making -- that the regulations designed to protect animals under the ESA create a bureaucratic thicket that can thwart development and local economies.
The state isn't entirely opposed to use of the ESA, but only wants to see it invoked in cases where species are "under immediate threat of extinction," according to statements previously made by Vincent-Lang.
While shutting down a commercial fishery altogether is a definite economic hit, other financial impacts are harder to assess in areas where development has not yet occurred. Take the polar bear: This summer, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a draft economic analysis of the costs of protecting habitat critical to the polar bears' survival. It found that, on average, the total cost would be about $54,000 per year -- chump change in the oil and gas industry, which has spent billions positioning itself to search for new riches in Arctic waters.
Since polar bears already receive significant protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the ESA, most of the cost associated with habitat designation stems from additional consultation among regulating agencies to ensure compliance, the report found. More red tape, yes, but far from an insurmountable financial hurdle.
But a study commissioned by the State of Alaska on the polar bear critical habitat impacts placed the potential costs in the millions, if not billions, of dollars. Compliance with the law isn't the only cost consideration, Parnell wrote in a recent opinion column. Project delays are also a money drain, and quickly add up.
Money aside, there is another upside for the state, according to Parnell, in assuming the "offensive" on matters related to the Endangered Species Act. If there is an ESA designation, citizens are free to file lawsuits claiming violations of the act on a wide variety of fronts. But when the ESA listing is removed, that option is eliminated, Parnell said, adding that people who may abusing the act in service to an anti-development agenda rather than genuine concern for the animals it's meant to protect will lose the ability to delay projects by clogging the courts with lawsuits.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.