Bill would make state more attractive place for mining businesses

Posted: Thursday, March 27, 2003

A bill now pending before the Legislature could remove a significant impediment to investment in Alaska by the mining industry.

Existing state law actually encourages lawsuits by green groups trying to block mineral development. When individuals or companies file lawsuits and lose, they can be forced to pay the attorney fees and other legal expenses of the party they unsuccessfully sued -- even if that party is the state.

When suits are filed by so-called public interest groups -- as in environmental organizations -- they are awarded legal fees if they win. But, when the green groups lose their cases, they are exempt from paying the costs of the winners.

In other words, the green lawyers have nothing to lose. If they win their suit, they are awarded their fees and expenses. If they lose, it costs them nothing. They simply go on to the next lawsuit.

That odd aspect of state law makes Alaska a very litigious state when it comes to environmental issues. Curt Freeman, a Fairbanks minerals consultant, told the Legislature that the tendency for green lawyers to sprint to the courthouse on issues large and small is very troublesome to mining industry executives.

Gov. Frank Murkowski, with the support of many legislators, is pushing a bill to end the green gravy train and make environmental lawyers assume the same financial risks faced by both the business community and individual Alaskans -- at least when filing lawsuits on resource development projects.

The new rules would apply in suits against the departments of Environmental Conservation, Fish and Game, and Natural Resources. If passed, the law would apply in limited but critical circumstances: when the agency is making a determination of consistency between state and federal policies, when adopting regulations and when there was opportunity for public comment and administrative review.

The problem now is reflected in industry attitudes. A recent survey of mining industry executives showed they rated Alaska as the 12th most attractive place for exploration.

The Alaska Economic Report noted last week that "when responses on land-use and environmental issues are taken out of the composite score, Alaska becomes No. 3 in the world in attractiveness." In other words, green litigiousness is discouraging prospective minerals industry investors -- big time.

No change in Alaska laws could end attempts by green groups to block mineral development, but encouraging them to think twice might be a deterrent. Making the environmental lawyers face the same financial risk as other litigators could change the way the mining industry rates the state as a place to invest its money.

-- Voice of the (Anchorage) Times

March 25

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