Feds Trump Alaska on|Oil Drilling in Refuge

     (CN) – Oil and gas in Alaska’s northernmost reaches will stay put after a federal judge ruled that the Department of the Interior has no continuing obligation to review the state’s drilling plans.
     Alaska submitted its oil and gas exploration plan for the coastal plain of the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in July 2013.
     Fish and Wildlife rejected it, so the state sued the agency and the Department of the Interior in March 2014.
     The Alaska National Wildlife Reserve, in Alaska’s northeast corner, was designated a protected wildlife area in 1960. The 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act added 10 million acres of adjoining land to the original 8.9 million acres of protected area to create the present day refuge.
     About 1.5 million acres in the refuge is designated as coastal plain: a 30- to 40-mile-wide strip between the Brooks Range and the Arctic Ocean. It is the site of one of the Earth’s last great mammal migrations, where caribou, migrating north from Canada, give birth to calves.
     It is also home to more than 200 species, including polar bears, wolverines, musk oxen and thousands of migratory birds.
     Congress, unsure whether the coastal plain should be open for drilling, included provisions in the Act for a report to provide “an analysis of the impacts of oil and gas exploration” on the coastal plain.
     Alaska claims the Secretary of the Interior has a duty under the Act to review its 2013 plan, but Interior says its authority to permit exploratory activity on the coastal plain expired once initial guidelines were established and submitted in a 1987 congressional report.
     There are several intervenor defendants in Alaska’s complaint against Interior, most of them environmental groups, plus the 8,000-member Gwich’in Nation, a native people to the area.
     Gwich’in is translated as “one who dwells” in a region.
     The people want the coastal plain designated as wilderness to protect animals and their habitat, which are vital to their Gwich’ins’ survival.
     Alaska and the Department of the Interior filed cross motions for summary judgment in September 2014.
     U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason granted the agency’s motion and denied the state’s, on July 22.
     “Congress authorized the Secretary to approve limited-duration exploratory activity on the coastal plain and ordered a report generated from these activities to be submitted to it by 1987,” Gleason wrote in the 17-page order. “Whether the statute authorizes or requires the secretary to approve additional exploration after the submission of the 1987 report is ambiguous. The secretary’s interpretation that her statutory authority and obligation to review and approve exploration plans ceased after the 1987 report had been completed is based on a permissible and reasonable construction of the statute. As a result, the agency’s interpretation … will be upheld.”
     Congress has not authorized any oil leasing on the coastal plain, yet, nor has the plain been designated as wilderness, Gleason said.
     Department of the Interior spokeswoman Jessica Cershaw did not respond to requests for comment.
     It came as no surprise to some that the Secretary of the Interior declined to review Alaska’s drilling plan, as the ANWR has been earmarked for wilderness designation.
     President Barack Obama requested Congress to set aside 1.4 million acres of the ANWR as wilderness earlier this year.
     “In early April, a record of decision was sent from FWS Director Dan Ashe to Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell and on to President Obama,” Fish and Wildlife Chief of Public Affairs Gavin Shire told Courthouse News. “President Obama then sent this to Congress as his official request to them to designate the area as wilderness. Only Congress can make this designation. Congress has not acted on this request at this time.”
     Jewell applauded President Obama’s request.
     “Designating vast areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness reflects the significance this landscape holds for America and its wildlife,” she said in a statement. “Just like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of our nation’s crown jewels and we have an obligation to preserve this spectacular place for generations to come.”The Fish and Wildlife Service did not respond to questions about whether Gleason’s decision affects a joint proposal by TransCanada Corp. and ExxonMobil to build an 800-mile-long pipeline to transport natural gas from Alaska’s North Slope to the U.S. Midwest.

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