A novel strategy pushed by then-Gov. Sean Parnell and his natural resources head -- now U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan -- to allow oil exploratory work in the off-limits Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was rejected Tuesday by a federal judge in Anchorage.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason was the latest court defeat for the Parnell administration's wide-ranging legal attack against what was frequently termed "federal overreach."
Parnell and Sullivan in July 2013 submitted an exploration plan for the ANWR coastal plain. After the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refused to consider it, the state sued in March 2014, arguing that exploration was mandated in the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act and still was authorized.
Gleason sided with the federal government, specifically Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. Whether the law required her to approve exploration is ambiguous, Gleason wrote in the 17-page decision.
Jewell's interpretation that the agency's authority to approve exploration expired with a report submitted in 1987 "is a reasonable and permissible construction of the statute," the decision states. Other Interior secretaries had reached the same conclusion, the federal government said.
Environmental organizations joined with a Gwich'in group to intervene in the suit over the state's objection. They applauded the ruling. But Sullivan, who stepped down from his post as Department of Natural Resources commissioner to run for the Senate, maintains that the state approach was a sensible one.
Gov. Bill Walker and the Department of Law "are still reviewing Judge Gleason's ruling and evaluating the state's options going forward," his spokeswoman, Katie Marquette, said in an email.
The state, which hired a Washington, D.C., firm to handle the case, was not able to provide information Tuesday on the cost of the litigation, assistant attorney general Cori Mills said in an email.
The state had asked the Department of Interior to allow seismic testing on the coastal plain, considered important caribou calving grounds. Sullivan had said the state wanted a seven-year program that would include exploratory drilling. Work would have been limited to winter with temporary ice roads and ice pads.
ANILCA, the 1980 federal law, created or expanded a number of Alaska national parks, refuges and other designations. It set aside the Arctic refuge coastal plain – known as the Section 1002 area, for its place in the law -- for further study.
In his 1987 report, then-Secretary Donald Hodel recommended legislation for an oil and gas leasing program. But Congress has never authorized oil leases there, nor has it designated the area as wilderness.
Parnell had argued that wasn't the end of the matter. The federal government had to approve a solid exploration plan, the state contended. Parnell in 2013 described Alaska's plan as "a world-class scientific document."
If the federal government approved the work, Parnell intended to seek $50 million from the Legislature for studies that would more accurately define ANWR's oil and gas potential. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was ignoring that potential, he said in a 2013 letter to Jewell.
Sullivan on Tuesday called the court decision "disappointing."
"As I did as Alaska's attorney general and DNR commissioner, I will continue to aggressively seek ways here in Congress to enable Alaskans to explore and develop the coastal area of ANWR," Sullivan said in an emailed statement.
As to whether he regretted the court fight, Sullivan said, "Not one bit."
President Obama has called on Congress to designate core areas of ANWR as wilderness, and the groups fighting the lawsuit on Tuesday underscored their support for that, as unlikely as it is.
"Birds flock here to nest from every state in the union and six continents, and it is the only place in the world where grizzly, black and polar bears all live together," said Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League.
The Gwich'in people call the 1.5 million-acre coastal plain, within the 19 million-acre Arctic refuge, "The Sacred Place Where Life Begins."
Sarah James, chairwoman of the Gwich'in Steering Committee, said the court decision is a good step, but many Alaska Native people want permanent protection to prevent any oil exploration or development in the refuge.
"The Gwich'in are caribou people; caribou are our food, our song, our dance, our clothing, our culture," James said in a statement. "This is a human rights issue."
Protecting ANWR as wilderness is unlikely in the current Congress.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, supports developing the ANWR coastal plain.
"Good public policy decisions require an informed public, but the administration has chosen to try to lock up millions of acres of the nation's richest oil and natural gas prospect without allowing a full assessment of its potential," her energy aide, Robert Dillon, said in an email.
The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated the coastal plain contains almost 8 billion barrels of technically recoverable oil and 3.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Correction: A photo originally accompanying this story depicted an area of ANWR not under consideration for the exploratory work addressed in the lawsuit.