A Superior Court judge has upheld a state decision allowing commercial development of the Redoubt Shoals oil and gas prospect in lower Cook Inlet.
In 2002, the Homer-based environmental group Cook Inlet Keeper appealed a decision by the Alaska Division of Governmental Coor-dination that found Forest Oil Corp.'s proposed Redoubt Shoals project consistent with the Alaska Coastal Zone Management Pro-gram.
With the prospect of litigation tying up development, state lawmakers took another tack. Rep. Hugh Fate, R-Fairbanks, introduced House Bill 86, specifically targeting such litigation by giving legislative approval to Cook Inlet Basin oil and gas projects that had consistency reviews and permits in hand at the time the bill became law in the fall of 2003.
Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and Rep. Kelly Wolf, R-Kenai, were cosponsors.
If constitutional, the law would effectively protect all such legislatively approved projects from further litigation over consistency permits.
Anchorage Superior Court Judge Sen K. Tan ruled HB 86 was constitutional, that the Legislature had expressly and legally intended its provisions to be retroactive, and that while Keeper's interest in maintaining access to the courts to appeal state decisions was important, the state had a valid interest "in promoting oil and gas development with minimal delay and expense to the public."
Tan said that because HB 86 had withstood constitutional scrutiny, it granted the intended legislative approval to the division's final consistency determination. Thus, Tan affirmed the division's decision.
"HB 86 was a fair and reasoned step to avoid endless litigation over projects that have already passed through environmental review," Attorney General Gregg Renkes said. "I am gratified that the court agreed with the governor and the Legislature and opened the way for environmentally responsible development or our rich petroleum resources."
Cook Inlet Keeper decried the decision.
"The disturbing thing is that the court seems willing to let the Legislature crawl in bed with oil industry and keep Alaskans in the dark," said Bob Shavelson, director of Cook Inlet Keeper. "We feel there are strong constitutional reasons to overturn this decision."
The group is considering an appeal of the Superior Court decision to the Alaska Supreme Court.
Shavelson, an attorney, said it appears the state does not want substantive reviews of the oil and gas industry's environmental impacts, but would rather give the industry "carte blanch to go ahead without understanding the impacts to our fisheries."
While HB 86 may prove to be a smoother path toward development, at about the same time the court was announcing its decision upholding the Legislative move, Forest Oil was announcing it had drastically reduced its estimates of recoverable oil at Redoubt Shoals. What had been projected at 49 million barrels was cut to just 8 million barrels.
Litigation over development at Redoubt Shoals has been ongoing since the late 1990s.
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