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Alaska Sues DOI Over Oil and Gas Plans

By Brett Snider, Esq. on March 19, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Alaska filed suit against the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) for squashing plans to seismically search for oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In a complaint filed Friday in federal district court in Alaska, the Land of the Midnight Sun charged the DOI (and Sally Jewell in her official capacity as Secretary of the Interior) with improperly rejecting an oil and natural gas investigation plan in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), reports the Courthouse News Service.

What are Alaska's arguments and can the feds deny its plans?

Alaska's Authority Under the ANILCA

The Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) was passed by Congress in 1980 to designate more than 100 million acres of federal Alaskan land as new or expanded conservation system units. According to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, this law attempted to balance the national interest in Alaska's "scenic and wildlife resources" with the state's own economic and infrastructure needs.

In the last two decades, it has more practically meant balancing the federal interest in protecting wildlife over Alaska's interests in exploring and exploiting its vast mineral and energy resources. In its complaint, Alaska posits its own authority under the ANILCA to have exploratory plans -- which meet certain requirements -- approved by the feds.

Specifically Alaska points to 16 U.S.C. § 3142, which is purposed on authorizing "exploratory activity within the coastal plain," but in a manner than doesn't cause "significant adverse effects on the fish and wildlife and other resources." Alaska alleges that the DOI and US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) rejected its plan to do seismic testing for oil and gas in the coastal plain of the ANWR and claimed it lacked authority.

Alaska argues that the area it seeks to explore remains open to "exploratory activity" even if it's closed to any actual production of oil or natural gas.

Court Decisions on Scope of ANILCA

Because of the natural wealth of Alaska's coastal shelf, it's been no small matter in litigating the scope of ANILCA's authority over the area.

In Amoco Production Co. v. Village of Gambell, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that oil disputes over Alaska's Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) was not governed by the ANILCA, which only governs up to 3 miles offshore. This case allowed oil companies to begin exploratory activities despite the claims of Alaska's Native population.

Almost two decades later, the Ninth Circuit declared that ANILCA had exclusive jurisdiction over Forest Service land and pre-empted any easements or other common law claims.

It's uncertain how the current view of ANICLA's scope and jurisdiction will apply to Alaska's current plans, or whether it will authorize a court to force the DOI or USFWS to approve those plans.

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