Coal bed group drafts Bill of Rights, presents it to legislators

Posted: Monday, March 29, 2004

The Kachemak Bay Property Owners Alliance symbolically presented the state with a Property Owner's Bill of Rights on March 18.

"It's time to tell the Legislature what it will take to protect our rights," said KBPOA president and spokesperson Mike McCarthy.

He and roughly 20 other property owners held signs expressing the same sentiments KBPOA has vocalized since last fall when it became public knowledge that roughly 21,000 acres of subsurface rights below Homer had been leased to Anchorage-based Lapp Resources for shallow gas exploration.

"Our message is simple. 'Buy back the leases,'" McCarthy said.

Friends of the Mat-Su, the group organized against development in that region of the state, unveiled the Bill of Rights at a similar event in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley on March 18.

McCarthy and Mat-Su group members traveled to Juneau that weekend to present their representatives and Gov. Frank Murkowski with 1,000-signature petitions and copies of the Bill of Rights.

They met March 22 on the steps of the capitol to publicly present the document to the Legislature.

"We have been denied due process. But also we've suffered the unlawful taking of the American dream property ownership," McCarthy said March 18 before reading from the Bill of Rights.

The document outlines demands of both Homer property owners and those in the Valley.

"Nothing has been presented in Juneau to date that protects the rights of our property owners," McCarthy said. "The Legislature must adopt the Alaska Property Owner's Bill of Rights."

In 10 sections, it requests legislation addressing property owner consent, a buyback and moratorium, proper notice, best interest finding, baseline studies and burden of proof, local control, protection of critical habitat and recreational lands, water protection, property owner safeguards and competitive bidding.

None of the legislation currently making its way through the House or the Senate adequately tackles all of these issues, said KBPOA member Nina Faust.

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, disagrees.

"In one way or another, amongst the bills, we're covering all these things. It's not in one comprehensive document. Part of the thing is, if one thing stalls you don't want everything to stall."

There are three bills in the house, in addition to each one's senate companion bills, that address shallow gas development from several sides of the issue.

Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, sponsored Senate Bill 250, the first buyback bill to be presented this session. It has been stalled in committee since its first reading Feb. 9.

"There is just absolutely no movement even on one committee on the senate side," Seaton said.

He altered his House Bill 394, SB 250's companion bill two weeks ago after it, too, had stalled in committee for weeks. The legislation asked for a moratorium on all shallow gas leases as well as for a buyback of the leases in the Homer area.

Now, HB 394 would keep the Homer-area leases from being renewed, unless paying quantities of gas are being produced. Additionally, it protects Homer from all other future lease sales.

Seaton also is co-sponsoring HB 395. The bill, which addresses many elements referred to in the Bill of Rights, moved out of the Oil and Gas Committee and into the Resources Committee, Seaton said.

There was to be a hearing March 19, however it was rescheduled.

"I think there's some good fixes here. Whether we can get these through is another thing.

"I'm happy that (HB)395 has moved out of Oil and Gas, and I'm hoping that (HB) 364 will (this) week," Seaton said.

There are 53 days left in this legislative session. Taking into consideration the other issues before the Senate and House, the fate of these bills is still up in the air, he said.

"There's a lot of attention being directed in other ways," Seaton said, citing the example of Gov. Murkowski's recent mandate to the Legislature that it not end this session without addressing the state's fiscal issues. "There's no predicting how it's going to go."

He has hope, though.

"I think that people recognize that there's definitely a problem with this program. Like Sen. (Scott) Ogan, who represented Evergreen (Resources) is saying, 'Let's do away with this program,'" Seaton said, referring to the most recent of the shallow gas legislation, HB 531 and its companion SB 312, which calls for the elimination and overhaul of the current natural gas exploration program.

It is sponsored by the Resources Committee, chaired by Sen. Scott Ogan, R-Palmer.

"There's a fair amount of support for it," Seaton said, adding the Alaska Oil and Gas Association has said it favors the bill. "I'm supportive of the bill. I look at it and I think we need to terminate the shallow gas program. That's what that does."

At this point, no bills are being considered that would buyback or swap the current leases.

KBPOA still would like to see that happen, however, McCarthy said.

"It's still an option. They have an obligation to do what's right by their constituents," he said. "I took an oath to protect this country when I joined the Marine Corps. These senators and representatives took a similar oath. Well, I stood by mine. I don't think they're standing by theirs."

Carly Bossert is a reporter for the Homer News.

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