"The primary intent of HB 69 was not to give developers permission to run roughshod over one's property or foul their water in the course of exploring for gas. It was to trim redundancy in the permitting process so entrepreneurs are not hamstrung by the state bureaucracy."
- Rep. Kohring
When reading the newspapers, my e-mail and attending meetings, it's clear there are a number of residents with doubts about how shallow natural gas (SNG) extraction might affect them. There has been an abundance of misinformation on this issue. As people read about how their property could be "bulldozed, drilled and covered with gravel pads, pumps and compressors" or their wells polluted by Evergreen Resources or some other company, they are legitimately asking questions about what could happen to their property and water rights.
Underlying the whole problem is still another, more basic challenge. Alaska's Constitution and the Statehood Act grants most subsurface rights to the State in a giant sweep, fomenting all the almost unsolvable problems we now face. If the "people of Alaska" own the subsurface, then individual property owners can not. Thus we have an ongoing, constant struggle over who and how the subsurface will be used.
With government ownership, this problem will always remain. Changing the Constitution and Statehood Act should be examined because private property owners ought to benefit from what's found under their land, but that's another fight for another day. We have to deal with present laws as they stand. That's why legislation is being worked on in Juneau to clarify and strengthen in statute private property owners' rights as much as the Constitution and Statehood Act permit.
A key issue is whether a borough can make and enforce regulations governing SNG. The answer is yes, despite misperceptions to the contrary. The State, through the Department of Natural Resources, does ultimately have the authority to override local ordinances (though unlikely), regardless of House Bill 69, because of the constitutional role of local governments as "subdivisions of the state." The primary intent of HB 69 was not to give developers permission to run roughshod over one's property or foul their water in the course of exploring for gas. It was to trim redundancy in the permitting process so entrepreneurs are not hamstrung by the state bureaucracy.
But since some still aren't convinced this is the case, the legislation before us will place private property and water protections clearly in "black and white" so property owners can see that they do indeed have state laws and regulations protecting them. It will also consider additional provisions identified in the current review process being done by the Department of Natural Resources that is exploring ways current protections may be improved.
While Evergreen has said it will not drill on private property without permission, protections should be beefed up. We should make it clear that no developer can so much as walk on your private property without adequate notice and consultation. We should also contain specific language that a "surface use agreement" being negotiated in good faith is acceptable to property owners before drilling occurs. And we should place clarifying language in statute to provide assurances that the state is compelled to protect water supplies from SNG development and that such protections already exist. Lastly, we should introduce amendments to the state's SNG leasing program requiring additional public notice and public comment to encourage more participation by those affected.
The main purpose of the legislation at hand is to strike a balance between private property rights and the State of Alaska which presumes to own all the subsurface. It's to encourage balance in society so we can have a new, private, economic engine which will provide real jobs, creating wealth for all, as opposed to the specter (much overblown in the media) of a distressed, smokestack, pollution-bent industry which runs over people in the drive to make money.
Such a balance can be achieved. It is possible to have a responsible oil and gas industry which respects private property rights, which gives us an improved economy and which does not spoil Alaska's natural beauty. My goal has always been to ensure the maximum rights and protections of private property owners.
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Vic Kohring is a Republican and represents Wasilla and the Mat-Su in the Alaska State Legislature. He is Chairman of the Legislature's Oil & Gas Committee.