April 01, 2013 --- Vol. 19, No. 23April 2013

No need for multiple ‘best interest findings,’ but DNR must consider cumulative impacts of oil and gas projects, Alaska Supreme Court says

The Alaska Supreme Court has rendered a mixed ruling in a case involving public review of oil and gas activity.

In a victory for the state, the justices reversed a lower court holding that the Alaska Department of Natural Resources was constitutionally required to make written “best interest findings” not only for oil and gas lease sales, but also for each subsequent project phase including exploration, development and transportation.

The high court, however, ruled against DNR’s position that it was not required to make assessments of cumulative impacts after lease sales.

“If DNR failed to consider cumulative impacts and provide to the public timely and meaningful notice of its assessment of the cumulative impacts of an oil and gas project as the project evolved through its phases, DNR would violate its constitutional duty to take a continuing hard look at new information and changing circumstances,” said the 26-page opinion issued March 29.

Robert Thompson, chairman of REDOIL, or Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands, said in reaction to the ruling: “The Inupiat rely on the subsistence resources of the Beaufort Sea to live. Now, before giving permits to corporations to explore and drill, DNR will have to look at what the impacts are, including the cumulative impacts, and include the public in deciding if it’s the right thing to do.”

The ruling stems from a case brought against DNR in 2010. The plaintiffs included REDOIL, the Gwich’in Steering Committee, the Alaska Wilderness League, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Northern Alaska Environmental Center.

The case concerned the extent to which DNR was obliged to prepare findings on whether the leasing of state-owned land is in the state’s best interest.

In November 2009, DNR issued a final finding that planned 2009-2018 lease sales along the Beaufort Sea coast would be in the state’s best interest.

The challengers argued DNR, in violation of the state constitution, had made only a limited best interest finding at the lease stage, and did not intend to make further findings at later stages.

—Wesley Loy

See story in April 7 edition, available Friday, April 5 at 11 a.m. at

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