The Supreme Court cleared the way Tuesday for oil exploration to be resumed off the coast of Alaska. In a unanimous decision, the justices said that federal laws designed to protect the fishing and hunting rights of native Alaskans apply to the mainland, not to offshore areas.
The winners were the major oil companies, which bid $4.2 billion for leases to explore off the Alaska coast, and the Interior Department, which sponsored the sale.
Court Halts Leases
"This removes the major stumbling block for us," said Bob Walker, a department spokesman. Since 1985, exploration and further leasing have been halted under orders from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The case (Amoco Production Co. vs. Village of Gambell) turned on the meaning of the phrase, "in Alaska." Alaskan natives in the village of Gambell sued to block oil exploration under the terms of federal laws protecting the aboriginal way of life. The appeals court said that the phrase "in Alaska" suggested the laws applied both to the land and to offshore areas.
Opinion by White
Justice Byron R. White, writing for the Supreme Court, disagreed.
"The phrase, 'in Alaska,' has a precise geographical-political meaning," he wrote. "The seaward boundary of a coastal state extends to a line three miles from its coastline."
Interior Department officials said that they expect the companies to resume exploration off Alaska soon, but not at the torrid pace of five years ago. They noted that oil prices have fallen sharply since then and that explorers have failed in recent years to find promising oil discoveries in Alaska.