Alaska's uphill battle to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development suffered a setback last week when the Fish and Wildlife Service rejected the state's proposal to conduct seismic testing on the coastal plain.
FWS Regional Director Geoffrey Haskett dismissed the state's assertion that federal law requires regulators to consider new exploration in ANWR.
"[T]he authorization for exploratory activity expired and the statue does not provide any continuing authority for additional exploratory activities in the coast plain of the Arctic Refuge at the present time," Haskett said in a July 23 letter to Alaska Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan.
Citing a Clinton administration-era legal analysis of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, Haskett said the Interior Department is not required to publish Alaska's exploration plan or hold hearings on the state's proposal, as requested by Sullivan.
Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell (R) protested the decision, which he said is based on an "inaccurate interpretation" of ANILCA. "Instead of doing any new work or review, they relied exclusively on a political memo prepared more than 10 years ago," Parnell said Friday.
The dispute, which is likely to lead to a court battle between Alaska and the federal government, centers on a legal reading of ANILCA.
According to the state, Section 1002(e) of the law permits anyone to "submit one or more plans for exploratory activity" in the wildlife refuge.
Based on that assessment, the state on July 9 submitted a 240-page exploration plan and special-use permit application for seismic research in ANWR (EnergyWire, July 10).
Alaska also offered to pay for the exploration work. At the time, Parnell said the plan "would put the state in the lead" of exploration in the refuge.
But Haskett rejected the state's interpretation of ANILCA, backing up his decision with a January 2001 legal opinion written by former Interior Department Solicitor John Leshy. That 12-page legal analysis argues that the language cited by Alaska was superseded by other provisions which restrict exploration in ANWR.
Now a law professor at the University of California, Hastings, Leshy drafted the legal opinion at the request of then-Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who was recently elected to the Senate.
In denying Alaska's request, Haskett said the state has 30 days to appeal his decision.
Until recently, Alaska's campaign to open ANWR to exploration was handled by Sullivan. But earlier this month, the commissioner was recalled to active duty with the Marines in Afghanistan. State officials say Sullivan is expected to return in early September (EnergyWire, July 24).
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