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Vol. 15, No. 22 Week of May 30, 2010
Providing coverage of Alaska and Northwest Canada's mineral industry

Mining News: No man is safe from the Legislature

State needs to grant authority to North Slope Borough to impose reasonable regulations without igniting epidemic of bureaucracy

J. P. Tangen

For Mining News

Mark Twain once pointedly observed that “no man’s life, liberty or property is safe when the Legislature is in session.”

Certainly, we can all feel much safer when the 90th day of the Alaska Legislature arrives – especially this most recent Legislature, which, fortunately, was prevented from doing too much harm by a split Senate. Nonetheless, there were threats that unresolved issues would be tossed back on the table once again next year.

Among the issues that just won’t seem to accept perpetual sublimation as its fate is the so-called concept of “coastal zone management.” Ordinarily, the delegation of authority to the lowest possible level is the wisest course for the management of anything. The people on the ground know more about the local conditions than anyone else ever could. However, local control is always a sword with two blades.

It is generally acknowledged that there are overriding public interest principles that justify central management and oversight. Clearly, the common defense falls into that category. The management of public utilities and transportation corridors are likewise thought to be better administered by nonlocal entities, as is the sale of alcohol (with obvious recent exceptions in rural Alaska).

On the fringe of such debates is the recovery of resources, especially petroleum and locatable minerals. The central government has long taken the view that such resources ought to be made commercially available only in response to pervasive oversight. Nonetheless, it is clear that in some instances, local folks, who are not content with federal and state authority, are unwilling to surrender their local control.

This sort of local unrest is often characterized by incontinent trips to the courthouse to protest some plan or program or another, even when our nurturing government has approved a given activity. Then, at great expense to all concerned, we ask our judges to invoke their myopic personal wisdom to second-guess the bureaucracy, with the result that sometimes — not always but sometimes — you get the fuzzy bear.

One of the historic, swimming-against-the-tide kind of efforts against central control of all and everything is the U.S. Coastal Zone Management Act, enacted during the Nixon Administration. Its central thesis is that the best way to protect our fragile coastlines is to allow the people who live and love there to have a dispositive say in what happens within the local coastal zone.

The federal law called for state implementation, and during the Hammond Administration, the Alaska Coastal Zone Management Act was signed into law. Through it, local governments (organized and unorganized) around Alaska’s tidal perimeter could weigh in on resource development (and other kinds of) projects with an aye or nay. In short order, the real value of the enactment became transparent. While extortion is a nasty word definitely inapplicable in this context, it is clear that there was a certain quid pro quo that mystically seemed to appear whenever an Alaska coastal zone management issue was present.

In due course, the dog’s wagging tail became intolerable, and Frank the Courageous (Murkowski) oversaw the dismantling of this ill-conceived bureaucratic nightmare. For the most part this brief epoch would have been relegated to a footnote of history except for one small glitch – the North Slope Borough has a major resource transportation corridor passing through its heart, and that region has a huge fiscal interest in and regulatory responsibility for what occurs in that corridor.

Accordingly, those representing the region are understandably adamant about legitimately securing the ability to manage their coastal zone and beyond. Their natural allies are other coastal communities that undoubtedly long for the good old days of vigorish and accommodation that went beyond both federal and state laws and regulations.

Perhaps Gov. Murkowski did, to a certain extent, throw out the baby with the bathwater; however, that does not justify filling the tub again. What is needed, and what will give mineral exploration companies across the state critical comfort is a surgical grant of authority, under the Alaska Coastal Zone Management Act if necessary, to the North Slope Borough to impose reasonable regulatory jurisdiction without revitalizing a new, endemic epidemic throughout the entire state of Alaska.

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