From our Anchorage office, some recent developments in Alaska of note:

Polar bears.  Comments are being taken on a proposed special rule and draft environmental assessment by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  When the polar bear was listed as a threatened species pursuant to the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a rule with a special exemption.  Broadly, activities such as oil and gas development that obtain all required authorizations pursuant to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and other activities in compliance with or excepted from the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, were not required to obtain additional authorizations pursuant to the Endangered Species Act.  Litigation ensued and in November of 2011 the federal district court for the District of Columbia ordered the agency to consider the potential environmental impacts of its rule.  The proposed rule continues the exemption for activities “outside the current range of the polar bear” rather than “outside Alaska” as in the interim rule currently in effect.  It is opposed by environmental groups based upon concerns that industrial greenhouse gas emissions generated by activities outside the range of the polar bear reduce summer sea ice habitat and impact the continued survival of polar bears.  The public comment period ends June 18, 2012.  You can find the proposed special rule, the draft Environmental Assessment, Questions and Answers, and more here.

The National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska (NPR-A).  Polar bears and much more are also being considered in long-term plans being developed for the NPR-A that will guide future decision-making by the Department of the Interior.  The alternatives being considered differ in the location and amount of areas that could be leased for oil or gas exploration and development, the identification and protection of Wild and Scenic Rivers, the designation of special areas, and the protections of surface resources.  Prior plans considered the northern portions of the NPR-A, but this is the first plan to be developed for the southern area, which encompasses over 9 million acres and includes important caribou calving grounds, natural gas reserves and much more.  A public comment period ends June 1, 2012 and public meetings have been scheduled in several Alaska locations during May.  For more information, visit this site.

Water quality.  The state is considering how to implement its anti-degradation policy to protect high quality waters.  Issues being considered include procedures and criteria for how outstanding national resource waters are designated, how waters are ranked, and how significant degradation is determined.  This is a very hot topic nationally, and there is considerable concern about how these new policies may affect the permitting process for mining waste and other development-related discharges into water-bodies.  A workgroup met May 7 and 8 and will meet again in July (date not yet set).  The public may observe and comment at these meetings, and a rule-making is expected to follow.  For more information, visit this site.