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Showdown in the Arctic: Alaska challenges Obama

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Photo - Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel either misunderstands or is purposely misusing a federal law that allows oil exploration and drilling in a coastal corner of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell is challenging Jewel. (AP PHOTO/Illustration by ESRI)
Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel either misunderstands or is purposely misusing a federal law that allows oil exploration and drilling in a coastal corner of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell is challenging Jewel. (AP PHOTO/Illustration by ESRI)
Ron Arnold,Columnists,Environment,President,Alaska,Federal Budget,Climate Change,Analysis,Arctic

Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell sent a letter in May to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell pledging $50 million in state funding for advanced technology 3-D seismic oil exploration -- not drilling -- in the promising coastal plain's "1002 Area" of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an area set aside by Congress for the study of its huge oil and gas potential.

On June 28, Jewell replied, "This administration remains opposed to drilling in the Refuge and I support that position. We, nevertheless, have reviewed your offer and conclude that any new 'exploratory activity' ... is prohibited by the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act of 1980 (ANILCA) and would require Congressional authorization."

Andrew Jensen, managing editor of the Alaska Journal of Commerce, begged to differ: "Not to put too fine a point on it, but that's a straight-up lie."

I caught up with Jensen by cell phone and asked, "Then what's the truth?" Jensen told me that if you read the section of ANILCA Jewell cited as a prohibition, you'll see it actually includes a strict authorization for "exploratory activity within the coastal plain." Industry had not used that clause, so this proposal was a state innovation.

If that's the law, what's Jewell's problem? Jensen's voice crackled, "Let's call Jewell's next objection 'pure fantasy.' She claimed that ANILCA's authorization to conduct exploratory activity was time-limited and expired in 1987.

"The law no-how, no-way has any such sunset date. It says that after Interior had time to submit proper guidelines to Congress, 'any person' may submit an exploration plan to the secretary. If it's consistent with the guidelines, the secretary 'shall approve the plan' -- that's 'shall,' not 'may' -- and do it within 120 days. I think that puts Jewell over a barrel.

"I'm not a lawyer, but Dan Sullivan used to be Alaska's attorney general, so talk to him. He's now commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources," Jensen said.

I caught up with Commissioner Sullivan -- on his cell phone -- and he told me, "Governor Parnell is taking the lead with state funding to explore the ANWR coastal plain. This is the public's oil and Americans have a right to know what's there."

What about that 120-day limit? Sullivan said, "On July 9, the State of Alaska sent Secretary Jewell an exploration plan and special use permit application under ANILCA. Our 240-page document is a world-class plan consistent with the guidelines and designed by experts who took months to make it the best ever.

"That means the clock is ticking -- the Secretary has 120 days from receipt to approve it. She must also promptly hold a hearing in Alaska and publish the plan in the Federal Register. Nothing in ANILCA sunsets exploration, so the burden is on the feds."

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell made her inaugural visit before the House Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Washington Republican Doc Hastings, on July 17. She faced grilling from lawmakers on low federal oil and gas production under President Obama.

Her final questioner was Don Young, Alaska's at-large congressman. "I make the suggestion that you read ANILCA," Young told Jewell in his scariest calm voice. "Under that act, there are some requirements you have to meet. If the state makes a proposal you have to respond. We've been watching this very closely, because if you don't, you'll be breaking the law."

I asked Dan Kish, former senior advisor to Young during his long committee chairmanship tenure, what happens if Jewell doesn't approve exploration?

"It goes to court, obviously," said Kish. "It's the only way to get anything to move on ANWR. Parnell has made a brilliant move proposing what Obama won't allow. Alaska's just giving Interior the chance to break the law."

Ironically, that put me in mind of Obama's brag, "If Congress won't do it, I will." Parnell didn't say it, but I can just hear him thinking: "If Obama won't do it, I will."

Washington Examiner columnist Ron Arnold is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.

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Ron Arnold

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The Washington Examiner