Pipeline proposal criticized
By Diana Campbell and Sam Bishop

Fairbanks News Miner
23 January 2003

Sen. Lisa Murkowski has introduced an amendment that could exempt the trans-Alaska oil pipeline's brand new right of way renewal permits from court challenges provided for under the National Environmental Protection Act.

Environmentalists said Murkowski's amendment threatens to eliminate the public's last legal recourse on the pipeline permits.

That she did it unexpectedly by adding it to the U.S. Senate's huge budget bill on Tuesday has raised the ire and disappointment of environmentalists who have voiced long- standing concerns with the permit process.

"Frankly, it's a shame that she took this first opportunity as a senator to do it wrong," said Bob Randall, a staff attorney with the Anchorage-based environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska.

"It's a backdoor tactic," he said. Murkowski introduced the amendment on her and Sen. Ted Stevens' behalf. Neither Murkowski nor Stevens could be reached for comment. Murkowski has called a news conference this morning in Washington, D.C.

If passed, the amendment would apparently continue the NEPA exemption that Congress authorized in 1973 under the Trans- Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act. That law allowed the secretary of the Interior to grant the rights of way and permits necessary for trans-Alaska oil pipeline construction and was passed after a federal court ruled that the environmental impact statement for the Alaska pipeline did not comply with NEPA.

"It's a shame that they had to exempt the project from the law in order to get it built and now they want to exempt it to keep it operating," Randall said.

The pipeline's original permits were issued in 1973 and were set to expire this year. Interior Secretary Gale Norton signed the pipeline's renewal permits on Jan. 8, extending them for another 30 years. Jerry Brossia, head of the Joint Pipeline Office in Anchorage, said during an interview at the time that he believes the EIS is solid but probably would be challenged in court.

The JPO is a group of state and federal agencies led by the federal Bureau of Land Management. The BLM took the lead role in writing the impact statement.

Gary Reimer, JPO deputy, said Wednesday that the environmental exemption in the original pipeline law didn't apply to the grant renewal, so BLM had to complete a new impact statement before extending the grant.

"I'm confident in it. There was a lot of work put in on this document," Reimer said.

Environmental groups have repeatedly asked for a citizens pipeline oversight group, periodic performance audits and an escrow account of collected funds for the dismantling of the pipeline once it is no longer needed. Instead, Norton called for financial audits every three years to ensure they have enough money to meet their legal obligations and saw no need for a citizens group. Funds are collected for the pipeline's dismantling, but Richard Fineberg, a Fairbanks-based consultant who wrote a report on the right of way issues for the Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility, said the money isn't in an identifiable account.

That will create problems for the state in the future, he said.

Fineberg criticized Murkowski's action.

"We presented a documented case that the pipeline, a vital link in the West Coast's oil supply that carries 1,000,000 barrels of oil per day, is an aging and problem-plagued facility," Fineberg stated in an e-mail. "The state and federal renewals ignored our straight-forward suggestions for instituting procedures that would provide meaningful environmental safeguards."

Arthur Hussey, the executive director, said it appears the amendment shuts out the judicial branch of government from participating in the pipeline's permits renewal decision.

"We are concerned," he said. "We'd like to see healthy public discussion about natural resources. We're not asking that the pipeline stop functioning."

It's not clear yet when the amendment might be considered. If approved by the Senate--either on a vote or by unanimous consent--it would become part of the 1,100-page omnibus bill intended to fund the federal government for the current fiscal year.

The omnibus bill is virtually a must-pass piece of legislation, and has attracted 245 proposed amendments, some of which are being debated on the Senate floor this week. Congressional leaders hope to finish the bill before President Bush's State of the Union speech next Tuesday.

Reporter Diana Campbell can be reached at business@newsminer.com or 459-7593. Washington, D.C., reporter Sam Bishop can be reached at sbishop@newsminer.com or (202) 662- 8721.

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