- Associated Press - Friday, May 23, 2014

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering new rules for managing the development of private, state or tribally owned mineral interests within the national refuge system, prompting concerns from officials in Alaska who say it flies in the face of existing laws.

The agency said a goal is to minimize development impacts as much as possible while also ensuring a consistent regulatory environment for industry. Federal officials say they are still gathering information, with no decision on whether new rules will be proposed. The effort follows reports from the Government Accountability Office in 2003 and 2007, calling on the agency to improve oversight and management of oil and gas activities.

But state officials point to the Alaska National Interest Land Conservation Act, or ANILCA, and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which they say apply unique provisions for nonfederal oil and gas development to lands in Alaska within refuge boundaries. Provisions of the laws were put in place “to protect the property rights of inholders and accommodate the State’s economic and infrastructure needs,” Susan Magee, the state’s ANILCA program coordinator, wrote in comments to the agency.

All 16 federal refuges in Alaska comprising nearly 80 million acres - about half the total number of acres within the national refuge system - fall under ANILCA, she said in an email to The Associated Press.

Fish and Wildlife, in its Federal Register notice, said the federal government does not own subsurface mineral rights in many of the refuges and that those who own the rights have the legal authority to develop them, in line with federal and state laws. Fish and Wildlife deputy director Steve Guertin, in written testimony before a U.S. House subcommittee earlier this week, said more than 200 refuges have existing oil and gas infrastructure, such as wells or pipelines, with active wells on about 100 of them. Of the more than 5,000 wells on refuge lands, only about 1,700 are active, with the rest inactive - in some cases for decades - or of unknown status, he said.

The problem, he said, is that many of the wells are orphaned, that is, responsible parties cannot be found to clean them up or properly plug them, leaving the costs to state and federal taxpayers. He pointed to cases in Mississippi and Texas that cost $260,000 and $1.2 million, respectively, to remediate.

Noah Matson with Defenders of Wildlife said the agency’s current regulations for private mineral rights are so full of qualifiers and discretion that they’re completely inadequate to protect fish and wildlife, the land and health and safety of the visiting public. He considers the numbers cited by the agency a minimum, saying from his experience, and in line with the GAO reports, Fish and Wildlife lacks an adequate system for tracking development within refuges.

But Kip Knudson, director of state and federal relations for Gov. Sean Parnell’s office, said the proposed new rules could affect “the livelihoods and energy security of many Alaskans.” Knudson, in his written remarks, said oil and gas exploration and development within the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is essential for providing natural gas to heat and electricity to homes in much of south-central Alaska.

Guertin told the panel the agency is envisioning the rules that would apply nationwide though is open to hearing more about a possible exclusion for Alaska, similar to what the National Park Service currently has. The process is still in its early phases, and it’s not clear yet whether the agency will even go forward with proposing new rules.

U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, predicted the issue would end up in court if an exemption for Alaska wasn’t carved out. He called the proposal “hare-brained” and expressed frustration by agencies that seem to want to ignore the intent of laws like ANILCA.