JUNEAU — The Alaska Department of Natural Resources is calling for more funding and staffing to speed the development of mining and drilling projects in the state. Among the requests: more support for work in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain.
According to the budget proposal unveiled by Gov. Mike Dunleavy earlier this month, the department is asking lawmakers to approve a $595,000 budget increase for “federal plans review and coordination.”
Gov. Mike Dunleavy has repeatedly said his goal is to make Alaska “open for business,” and the funding request appears to be an example of the way the governor’s words are being translated into action.
“It’s open for business but also ensuring that we’re protecting state interests as we’re having conversations about how to develop state resources,” said Faith Martineau, director of the planning office that would receive the additional funding.
Department of Natural Resources special assistant and former state legislator Dan Saddler said it’s important to remember that the request is a starting point for discussion with the Legislature, which has the final word on adding money to the budget.
“I am sure we will have robust discussions with legislators to explain DNR’s budget request, and how this funding would help advance the governor’s priorities of developing natural resources, and ensuring that Alaska is open for business,” he said.
The department handles much of the pre-development work for major projects in Alaska, and a budget document says its office of project management and permitting needs additional funding because it expects to revise conservation plans for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge “to ensure consistency with oil and gas leasing in the Coastal Plain area.”
That refers to a planned federal oil and gas lease sale in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the North Slope. An oil and gas lease sale in the refuge had been expected as early as this year, but it now appears 2020 is the earliest possible date.
Martineau said the additional money would also be used for work on drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and a plan covering the central Yukon River region. She said the growing complexity of large projects requires more work on the state’s part.
Without the additional funding, the department’s planning office said there is a “critical threat” to its ability to work with the federal government.
In a Sunday column published by the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, University of Alaska petroleum and energy economics professor Doug Reynolds said Alaska has a “real problem” and “in Alaska’s rush to reduce the size of its government, the Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Revenue and others have lost employees and cannot look into as many regulatory issues.”
By phone, he said he wasn’t thinking about the recent budget request specifically but about a broader drawdown in staffing for all agencies.
When asked whether the Department of Natural Resources proposal is designed to speed permitting and development, Dunleavy deputy communications director Jeff Turner wrote, “One of the central themes of Governor Dunleavy’s agenda is to open Alaska for business. His proposed FY21 budget boosts funding for permitting and regulatory approvals to spark economic development projects that will create new investment, economic growth, jobs and prosperity for all Alaskans. The Governor is also taking the message that Alaska is open for business around the country. His trip to Washington D.C. last week was an opportunity to promote Alaska’s wealth of natural resources.”
“What does Alaska have to offer? Obviously our resources,” Dunleavy said Thursday, adding that he would also like to diversify the economy beyond the “oil horse” the state has ridden for the past four decades.
In budget documents, the Department of Natural Resources said it has already transferred additional staff to its project permitting office and the state’s geological mapping office, used by companies to pinpoint the location of prospective mines.
The department’s budget also requests more staff for the state’s library of geological samples, which holds oil-exploration data, and the department is planning to turn a handful of temporary geological jobs into full-time seasonal ones in order to support “ongoing critical projects.”