Bills limit environmental, other lawsuits

Posted: Sunday, June 15, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) Gov. Frank Murkowski signed a bill Friday intended to end a lawsuit over oil drilling in Cook Inlet and prevent such lawsuits in the future.

He also signed legislation that could make it more expensive for citizens to challenge the government in cases ranging from public records requests to enforcement of zoning rules.

House Bill 86 is intended to stop a lawsuit Cook Inlet Keeper filed last year over state decisions on permits for Forest Oil's Redoubt Shoal development.

The Homer-based environmental organization argued the state did not properly consider the project's potential to harm Cook Inlet habitat, fisheries and subsistence resources.

The bill not only affects the current case, it will prevent most people from suing in the future over decisions made under the Alaska Coastal Management Program.

An executive with Forest Oil said the bill gives oil companies the certainty they need to invest in Alaska.

''Once the state has done everything that's required of them through laws and regulations, and applicants have done everything that's required of them, in the future (they) wouldn't be subject to this type of litigation,'' said Gary Carlson, Forest Oil's senior vice president for Alaska operations.

A lawyer for Cook Inlet Keeper said the bill unfairly denies ordinary citizens access to the courts.

Under the bill, the only parties allowed to sue over coastal management decisions are the person or company applying for a permit, a local coastal resource district, or people suing based on violations of the state or federal constitution.

Attorney Rebecca Bernard, who represents Cook Inlet Keeper, said the bill may be unconstitutional.

''I think it's highly problematic for the bill to shut the courthouse doors to some people but not others,'' Bernard said. ''One of the really terrible things about this bill is it shuts the courthouse doors to members of the public, but not to industry.''

Murkowski also signed House Bill 145, which deals with attorney fees for public interest litigants. Public interest litigants are generally defined as people who sue not for economic benefit, but to affect public policy.

Currently, court rules allow them to recoup attorney fees when they successfully challenge the government, even if they only succeed on parts of their case. Public interest litigants are not liable for the other party's lawyer fees when they lose.

Some lawmakers, and the Murkowski administration, argue those rules give environmental groups an incentive to file lawsuits.

House Bill 145 takes away public interest litigant status for most people suing the government, allowing it only for cases involving constitutional issues.

Murkowski also signed several other bills Friday, including:

- House Bill 111, which extends the Regulatory Commission of Alaska until 2007 and requires it to review its rules and regulations governing telecommunications.

- House Bill 283, which doubles the acreage of coal leases a single company can hold to 92,160 acres.

- House Bill 246, which lets companies lease more state acreage to explore for oil and gas. The amount of uplands land a company can lease rises from 500,000 acres to 750,000 acres. The increase does not apply to the North Slope.

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