Oil Grab in Alaska

With a single exception, Democratic Gov. Steve Cowper of Alaska has been a loyal supporter of the Reagan Administration’s program to lease federal lands and waters in Alaska for oil exploration and drilling. He even has toured the Lower 48 to lobby for oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge on the North Slope--an idea that is anathema to environmental groups.

Cowper has opposed only one federal oil-lease sale--in the outer continental shelf of Bristol Bay, one of the world’s great fisheries and the habitat of a variety of endangered species and marine mammals. But Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel has rejected the opposition of Cowper and a coalition of Alaska fishing, native and environmental groups and forged ahead with the lease sale on 5.6 million acres of bay waters.

The action of the interior secretary mocks the 1978 federal law that sought to give the states’ governors a greater say in the federal offshore-leasing process to the point of requiring the secretary to accept a governor’s recommendation if it provides for a reasonable balance between the national interest and the well-being of the citizens of the state. In the current Administration, however, there has been no balance, but rather a zeal to drill anywhere and everywhere.

The Alaska coalition had managed to delay the Bristol Bay lease sale for more than two years. But the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the Alaska victory early this month, ruling on the narrow ground that the lease sale alone would not cause environmental damage. In his appeal of that ruling, Cowper has focused on the role that governors play in the leasing process, saying that it is of great effect in all U.S. coastal areas. “If Section 19 does not have the teeth to allow the governor of Alaska to protect an ecological and environmental wonder like Bristol Bay, then the enactment is an illusion,” Cowper’s lawyers said.


Cowper’s administration is seeking a rehearing by the 9th Circuit Court, and is preparing an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The case raises some of the same issues pursued in the past by California interests; the state of California filed a brief in the Alaska case as a friend of the court. In passing the 1978 leasing act amendments, Congress wanted to ensure that governors have “a leading role” in offshore oil development, including decisions on potential lease sales, according to the House conference report on the bill.

California should support Alaska in its appeal. If that fails, the law should be amended again to make the states’ authority even more specific.