House Passes Permitting Bill

In a late night vote, the Alaska House passed legislation that would change the way water rights are processed. The bill is part of Gov. Sean Parnell’s efforts to overhaul the permitting system, and it’s prompted some criticism from conservation groups like Trout Unlimited.

Rep. Eric Feige, a Republican from Chickaloon, characterizes it as a pro-industry reform package that will help reduce a backlog in permit applications.

“The overall theme of the bill is to bring some more efficiency, bring better service to the public, and to streamline our permitting system,” says Feige. “This goes a long ways to making us more competitive in the world and to help move the resource industry in this state forward.”

The bill gives more power to the head of the natural resources department, authorizing the commissioner to grant general permits for activity on state lands, so long as that activity doesn’t cause irreparable damage. It sets a higher bar for an administrative appeal of a DNR decision by changing the standard from “aggrieved” to “substantially and adversely affected.” The bill also closes off water reservation applications to non-government entities. Right now, Alaska is the only state where individuals can directly petition for specific streams to maintain certain levels of flow.

Opponents of the bill say these changes could put salmon runs at risk. Rep. Andy Josephson, an Anchorage Democrat, says the policy changes might also limit public involvement in mining projects.

“The bill has far-reaching consequences that were not considered or addressed by the only committee of referral, and it has impacts that are not even understood even today,” says Josephson. “One of the significant impacts of this bill will be on the right to water in the Pebble Mine area.”

Democrats introduced four amendments to the bill, including one that would have created some protections for fish habitat. While none of the measures passed, some coastal and Bush members of the majority broke with their caucus to vote for them.

The bill ultimately passed on a 23-14 vote on Monday, with Republicans Alan Austerman and Paul Seaton voting against it. Its counterpart in the Senate is under consideration by the finance committee.