State corporation sues over Arctic refuge leases

ANCHORAGE — An Alaska state corporation that was the main bidder in an oil and gas lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year said it is suing federal officials over what it calls improper actions that are preventing lease activities.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority alleges federal officials overstepped in suspending lease-related activities, among other actions. The lease program advanced under then-President Donald Trump. The lease sale was held in January, shortly before President Joe Biden took office.

Tyler Cherry, an Interior Department spokesperson, said Thursday the agency did not have a comment.

Alaska political leaders, including Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the Republican congressional delegation, have supported opening the coastal plain of the refuge to development, and a federal law passed in 2017 called for lease sales. Drilling supporters have characterized development as a way to boost oil production, generate revenue and create or sustain jobs.

But critics have argued the area, which provides habitat for wildlife including caribou, polar bears and birds, should be off limits to drilling, and some would like to see the provisions of law calling for lease sales repealed. The Indigenous Gwich’in consider the coastal plain sacred and have expressed concern about impacts to a caribou herd they rely on for subsistence.

An executive order from Biden earlier this year called for a temporary moratorium on activities related to the leasing program and for the Interior secretary to review the program and “as appropriate and consistent with applicable law,” conduct a new environmental review.

In June, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said her review had found “multiple legal deficiencies” in the record supporting the leases, including an environmental review that failed to “adequately analyze a reasonable range of alternatives.” She directed a temporary halt on department activities related to the leasing program until a new review was done.

Interior Department official Laura Daniel-Davis, in a letter to the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, said the additional environmental review would be undertaken to “determine whether the leases should be reaffirmed, voided or subject to additional mitigation measures.”

The corporation alleges federal officials “have engaged in a politically driven, systematic campaign to prevent any Coastal Plain development.”

The lawsuit filed Thursday lists as defendants Biden, Haaland and Interior Department officials.

Army helicopters to rescue 7 stranded at remote camp

Alaska State Troopers said efforts continue to try to rescue seven people who have been stranded since last week at a cabin about 20 miles east of the Yukon River community of Emmonak in western Alaska.

The group is “adequately supplied with food, water, shelter, and necessary supplies at this time,” according to a statement from the troopers on Thursday. No injuries have been reported.

Troopers spokesperson Austin McDaniel earlier this week said the seven were on their way to Pilot Station from the Emmonak area when they decided to stop at the cabin for the night on Oct. 28.

“While they were there overnight, the river iced over. So the ice on the river is too thick to run a boat, and it’s not thick enough to run snowmachine there, and there’s no overland route to get to this spot,” he said Tuesday.

Troopers said they were notified the individuals were “stuck” at the camp around 5:15 p.m. last Friday and that a supply drop of food and needed medications was made on Sunday.

Authorities had been pursuing use of a helicopter to pick the individuals up, McDaniel said. Weather conditions between the area and some hub communities, however, had previously hampered efforts to deploy aircraft to get to the site, he said.

Troopers said mechanical issues prevented a Coast Guard helicopter from launching Thursday, and no private helicopters were available for the day. Troopers said two U.S. Army helicopters from Fort Wainwright were expected to travel to the area Thursday with plans to “extract” the group Friday morning.

Draft suggests campaign caps to replace those struck down

A draft opinion prepared by Alaska Public Offices Commission staff proposes imposing campaign contribution limits in the place of some of the caps that were struck down by a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this year.

Robin Brena, an attorney who challenged the limits that were struck down, said the draft opinion is based on flawed logic.

“I don’t see any real reason for an agency to feel that it’s necessary to set campaign limits in Alaska. They should leave that job to the Legislature,” he said.

Heather Hebdon, the commission’s executive director, said the draft “will be the guidance we are providing to campaigns, at this time.”

The limits outlined in the draft would apply “until the Commission rules otherwise or disapproves the opinion,” she said. The draft states that the commission is expected to rule on the proposal in January and can approve, disapprove or modify it.

A divided federal appeals court panel in July struck down a $500-a-year limit on what an individual can give a candidate. It also struck down a $500-a-year limit on individual contributions to non-party groups and a cap on nonresident donations.

The state Department of Law did not seek further legal review of the panel’s decision. In August, Grace Lee, then a department spokesperson, said the department encouraged “the legislature to address this issue and determine what limits would be appropriate based on current constitutional precedent.”

An email seeking comment on the draft opinion was sent to a department spokesperson Wednesday.

The draft advisory opinion was dated Wednesday and shows it was prepared by Thomas Lucas, the commission’s campaign disclosure coordinator. It suggests that limits that were in place before those that were struck down “apply as adjusted for inflation,” including $1,500 per calendar year for individual-to-candidate and individual-to-group contributions. The draft does not specifically refer to nonresident contributions.

The draft states that reviving limits to amounts that previously existed, such as $1,000 from individuals to candidates, alone may not satisfy concerns raised by the appeals court panel and that is why the inflation adjustments are being proposed.

Brena said the prior law had “many of the same constitutional issues at $1,000 that it had at $500.”

“So in effect what staff’s saying is, we can go to prior law but prior law’d probably be unconstitutional so let’s change it and so let’s add inflation proofing,” he said. “Well, you don’t get to change the prior law, and if the prior law’s unconstitutional under the holdings of the 9th Circuit, then you can’t go back to those.”

Brena has hailed the appeals court decision as a win for free speech. In July, he said he viewed the 9th Circuit’s actions as allowing for campaign contributions from individuals to candidates that are “unrestrained.”

That was a concern for Alaska state Senate Democrats, who asked the governor to direct the attorney general to pursue further legal review of the decision by the appeals court panel.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, an Anchorage Democrat, said he hopes the commission adopts the draft proposal. He said he is not sure how a court would rule on the matter, but he said he expects a legal challenge.

Next year features a race for governor, and most legislative seats also will be up for election.