The Alaska Supreme Court ruled against DCC today in the case of Denali Citizens Council vs. State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources and Usibelli Coal Mine, Inc. regarding a Best Interest Finding for a Healy Basin Gas-Only Exploration License. As regular followers of DCC know, the organization has been involved in this litigation for the past three years, ever since DNR Commissioner Tom Irwin refused to make any changes in the final Best Interest Finding after DCC’s request for reconsideration.
Throughout, DCC has articulated the very reasonable position that there is room to develop natural gas resources in the Denali Borough while still protecting the critical wildlife habitat and recreation lands at the border of Alaska’s premier visitor attractions – Denali National Park and Preserve – and while separating gas development from residential neighborhoods and drinking water sources. DCC repeatedly requested to sit down with DNR, Usibelli, and the Denali Borough to see if we could negotiate a resolution that would satisfy everyone, but we were refused on multiple occasions. The Department of Natural Resources promised at the outset of the Best Interest Finding process that the interest of the community would be paramount in its decision, and that it would provide the highest level of protection possible for residents. The blatant failure of DNR to follow through either on those promises or its responsibility to consider state resource interests beyond oil and gas was the reason DCC felt compelled to litigate. That the court upheld the unreasonable finding shows how severely the state’s laws are stacked in favor of the oil and gas industry.
DCC has long had contingency plans in case the court ruling did not go in our favor. Although DCC is not opposed to reasonable gas exploration and development in the Denali Borough, we will continue to advocate for more stringent landowner protections when gas exploration activities impinge upon private property, and for the protection of sensitive lands in the Wolf Townships. Our strategy will involve education of local residents (already begun with publication of The Alaska Citizen’s Guide to Natural Gas Permitting and providing landowner information on our website), developing the technical capacity to watchdog development activities, and working with the Denali Borough Assembly to ensure protection of landowner rights. We advise all landowners to immediately file for their water rights. You can find instructions on the DCC website at http://www.denalicitizens.org/healy-basin-gas-exploration-license-2/attention-landowners/.
Despite the adverse opinion from the Supreme Court, DCC’s action has proven valuable and worthwhile in several respects. First, there has been a delay in starting exploration that has provided time for state regulators to catch up on modern gas development practices, such as the pending rules on hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) from the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Second, the litigation highlighted the importance of the Wolf Townships to a local and statewide audience, which will help buttress future efforts at protection. Third, the development of the organizational, fundraising, and technical capacity necessary to carry off the litigation enhanced DCC’s capabilities, placing us in a more sophisticated and knowledgeable position to fight for residents and wildlife as industrial activities begin to occur. Finally, the Supreme Court did hand us a partial victory in its decision, stating that DNR and Usibelli had committed themselves to considering public costs and benefits in implementing mitigation measures, not just the private costs to the developer. This language is in the court decision, but not in the Finding itself, so the public will need to remain vigilant to make sure the decision sticks.
Altogether, DCC and the public are in a much better position than we would have been without the litigation. DCC thanks its many donors and supporters for staying with us during this process – your enthusiasm for this cause and your generosity made all of these gains possible. DCC is now ready to continue leading action to protect the wildlife, wild lands, and wonderful homes that we share in this community.