Politics

Alaska hires 2nd outside law firm to fight Biden administration over Arctic National Wildlife Refuge leases

Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration has hired a contract law firm to fight the Biden administration’s suspension of oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, supplementing the hired attorneys who are already working on the case on behalf of the state’s economic development corporation.

The corporation, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, won seven leases in the refuge’s coastal plain in an auction last year in the closing days of the Trump administration.

Biden, on his first day in office, ordered a halt to development-related activity in the refuge, and his Interior Department is now conducting a new environmental review of oil and gas activity there. AIDEA sued in federal court in November in an attempt to lift the ban.

AIDEA already has its own outside law firm, Holland and Hart, that’s representing the state-owned corporation in the case. But last week, Dunleavy’s administration filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit as a separate entity, asserting that it has different and broader interests from AIDEA, with jobs and tax revenue at stake.

Then on Tuesday, four attorneys at Denver-based Davis Graham & Stubbs registered with the court to represent the state in the case. They’ll be paid between $540 and $608 an hour, according to a copy of their contract with the Department of Law, which was finalized Wednesday.

Funding for the contract, which is capped at $250,000, comes from a $4 million, multi-year budget boost that lawmakers gave the law department last year for “statehood defense.” The contract is “meant to be a release valve” for the Department of Law and will cover more than the Arctic Refuge lawsuit, said Aaron Sadler, a department spokesman.

“With the myriad of federal litigation we are involved in due to the exponential increase in federal actions that negatively impact Alaska, it was necessary to bring in additional resources to assist with these efforts and effectively represent Alaska’s sovereign interests to manage and responsibly develop its resources,” Sadler said in an email. “That’s why the state of Alaska is coming in as a separate party from AIDEA — AIDEA is a public corporation that represents its own interests. The state represents the sovereign, landowner interests of the state.”

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An Interior Department spokeswoman declined to comment.

Dunleavy’s administration has also intervened separately from AIDEA in a case where conservation groups are challenging environmental approvals for a proposed road to a mining district in remote Northwestern Alaska — though in that lawsuit, the state has not registered outside attorneys.

The department is asking lawmakers for an additional $4 million for statehood defense in Dunleavy’s new budget proposal; the appropriation, like last year’s, would cover spending through mid-2025.

In a midyear update to legislative budget analysts, the law department said that last year’s line item is helping to pay for work on 13 legal matters, though it has not provided a list.

Opponents of oil development in the refuge characterized the Dunleavy administration’s hiring of its new law firm as a dubious use of state money.

“For all the talk about Alaskan jobs, it’s bizarre to see the state’s spending on expensive Outside lawyers to defend this illegal lease sale,” says Emily Sullivan, Arctic program manager at the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, one of the conservation groups that’s filed a separate lawsuit challenging oil in the refuge. “There are so many ways the state could support Alaskans: in strengthening our existing infrastructure to better prepare us for the impacts of climate change, in developing equitable access to telecommunications as we enter year three of a pandemic, in diversifying our energy grid and economy. Unfortunately, Gov. Dunleavy, in his State of the State address, reiterated once again that he cannot imagine Alaska as anything but an energy colony, and this seems like an expression of that failed leadership.”

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is an Anchorage-based journalist and a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media, and has written for FasterSkier.com, The Washington Post and others. Read his newsletter, Northern Journal, at natherz.substack.com

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