DCC’s legal case challenging the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ Best Interest Finding for a Healy Basin Gas-Only Exploration License is at last moving into the courtroom. Judge Andrew Guidi will hear oral argument on the merits of the case on July 2 at 2:30pm in Anchorage. The hearing is open to the public, and DCC invites and encourages members and supporters to attend. While the case will be decided on its merits, it will be helpful for the judge to see concerned community members in the audience.
The gas exploration that DNR approved in the Healy Basin could lead to enormous landscape impacts if future development unfolds as in other locations in the U.S. Coalbed methane development – the most likely form of gas development in the Healy Basin –would convert the area into a large industrial zone with pipelines, roads, heavy truck traffic, wellpads, drill rigs, compressor stations, and other infrastructure distributed across the landscape (and potentially residents’ yards). Enormous amounts of groundwater would be extracted from coal seams and would require disposal, with unknown impacts on water quality and groundwater supplies (i.e., peoples’ well water). Hydraulic fracturing – the now-infamous “fracking” technology – could be employed. The area included in the license could come to look, sound, and smell not like the peaceful rural landscape we know now, but more like an extensive industrial facility.
The oral argument in our lawsuit against DNR’s decision will allow us to present the merits of our case to the judge. The legal process and discussion have gone on so long that all but those who are following the case carefully have probably lost track of the details. In brief, DCC spent years during the Best Interest Finding process trying to convince DNR that surface property in the Healy basin has great value to the local economy and to local residents, that gas exploration and development threaten those interests , and that wildlife habitat in the Wolf Townships is too important to be compromised for gas extraction, particularly when the gas resource is not thought to be of statewide importance. After repeatedly assuring us that they cared about DCC’s concerns, DNR published a final Best Interest Finding at the end of 2010 that acknowledged none of the organization’s well-supported contentions, even rolling back important mitigation measures that had been proposed in the preliminary finding.
While DNR has a lot of discretion in making decisions about where and how oil and gas exploration occurs on state land in Alaska, it must have a rational explanation for its decision. In its final Best Interest Finding, DNR did not explain why it could not consider a smaller lease area or more stringent mitigations, and offered irrational points as to why it rolled back protective mitigation measures. Unfortunately, this decision appears to be in line with DNR’s new mission statement, which prioritizes resource development over other values. Thankfully the law does not sanction the type of unsupported and irrational decisions that DNR made here, as we will point out to the court at oral argument.
Over the years since this project was first proposed (in 2003), DCC has attempted to engage executives from Usibelli Coal Mine and staff from the DNR’s Division of Oil and Gas in a discussion where we could craft a solution amenable to everyone. After all, DCC is not trying to stop gas development in the Borough, we just want some sensitive lands left out of the license area and some stronger mitigations introduced to protect property owners from the impacts of any gas development that may occur. Given the sparse population of the Borough our solution doesn’t seem that difficult. While DNR and Usibelli Coal Mine have not been willing to engage us in this conversation to date we remain open to a reasonable resolution that is agreed to by all of these parties.
The oral argument will be the latest round of legal exchanges between DCC and Alaska DNR, as represented by state attorneys. Attorney and long-time friend of the conservation community Peter Van Tuyn is representing DCC, and has filed two briefs for the organization so far. You can read both briefs and the State’s response brief on our website, following the links at http://www.denalicitizens.org/healy-basin-gas-exploration-license-2/healy-gas-historical-documents-background/.
Please come to the hearing if at all possible. Full details are as follows:
DCC vs. DNR
2:30pm on July 2, 2012
Judge Andrew Guidi Courtroom
402 Nesbett Courthouse
825 West 4th Ave, Anchorage