Justia Alaska Supreme Court Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Energy, Oil & Gas Law

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In consolidated appeals, the issue before the Supreme Court concerned the attorney’s fees and costs awarded in the 2006 Trans-Alaska Pipeline System tax assessment case. The superior court decided that the Fairbanks North Star Borough, the City of Valdez, and the North Slope Borough were prevailing parties for purposes of attorney’s fees and costs because they had prevailed on the main issues of the case. The superior court also applied the enhancement factors to raise the presumptive award from 30 percent to 45 percent of the prevailing parties’ reasonable attorney’s fees. The owners of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System appealed, arguing the superior court should have applied Alaska Appellate Rule 508 instead of Civil Rules 79 and 82. In the alternative, they contended: (1) that the three municipalities did not prevail as against the owners; (2) that fees should have been allocated between separate appeals; (3) that none of the prevailing parties were entitled to enhanced attorney’s fees; and (4) that the Fairbanks North Star Borough’s award should have been reduced as recommended by a special master. The Fairbanks North Star Borough and the City of Valdez cross-appealed, arguing that the superior court should have viewed this case as one involving a money judgment for purposes of an attorney’s fees award under Rule 82(b)(1) and, in the alternative, that they were entitled to a greater enhancement of their fees. Finding no reversible error, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "BP Pipelines (Alaska) Inc. v. Alaska, Dept. of Revenue" on Justia Law

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Alaskan Crude Corporation applied to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to have a suspended the "Burglin 33-1" well reopened to explore for oil and gas. Arguing that it was highly unlikely that oil from the well would rise to the surface unassisted, Alaskan Crude requested to be exempted from oil discharge response requirements or, in the alternative, to have the requirements reduced. The Commission made successive reductions to the technical flow-rate assessments and the response planning standards that it recommended to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation for use in setting Alaskan Crude’s discharge response requirements. The Commission declined, however, to classify the Burglin 33-1 well as a gas facility, which would have exempted Alaskan Crude entirely from such requirements. Alaskan Crude appealed to the superior court, challenging the Commission’s recommended response planning standards and its well classification. The superior court affirmed. Alaskan Crude appealed from the superior court’s decision. Finding no error, the Supreme Court affirmed. View "Alaskan Crude Corporation v. Alaska" on Justia Law

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In 2001, Union Oil Company of California entered into a contract to sell its oil to Tesoro Alaska Company. Under the contract the Tesoro took title at the North Slope, but agreed to use a pipeline company associated with Union to transport oil through the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The price per barrel was calculated as the West Coast market price less marine transport and pipeline tariff. The contract made no mention of whether the pipeline tariff was tied to the ultimate destination of the oil. At the time, the interstate and intrastate pipeline tariffs were the same. Tesoro shipped the oil to an in-state refinery and paid the tariff to the pipeline company. Union subtracted the tariff amount from the market price of the oil less marine transport and sent invoices to the buyer. Meanwhile, Tesoro successfully challenged the intrastate tariff as unjust and unreasonable and the pipeline company issued a refund, including 10.5% interest. Union claimed that it was entitled to the tariff refund under the contract. The superior court, on motions for summary judgment, awarded the principal amount of the refund to Union and the interest to Tesoro. Both parties appealed. Upon review of the dispute, the Supreme Court held that the contract's pricing term was a netback price to the Los Angeles market referencing the interstate tariff. Accordingly, the Court reversed the superior court's grant of summary judgment to Union and remanded for entry of judgment in favor of Tesoro. View "Tesoro Alaska Company v. Union Oil Company of California" on Justia Law

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The State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources, Oil and Gas Division (DNR), petitioned the Supreme Court for review of a superior court decision that under AS 38.05.035, the lack of continuing best interest findings (BIF) at each phase of an oil and gas project violated article VIII of the Alaska Constitution and that the DNR must issue a written best interest finding at each step of a phased project to satisfy the constitution. Because best interest findings after the lease sale phase are not required under the Alaska Constitution or AS 38.05.035, the Supreme Court reversed the superior court's ruling. Furthermore, the Court held that the State was constitutionally required to consider the cumulative impacts of an oil and gas project at its later phases. View "Sullivan v. Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands" on Justia Law

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In 1961, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued a right-of-way grant to the Alaska Department of Public Works conveying a "road building material site" along the Denali Highway with no expiration date and no rental fee. After the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was enacted in 1971, the United States conveyed the surface and subsurface estates encompassing the State's material site to Ahtna, Inc., an Alaska Regional Native Corporation. The conveyance was "subject to" the "[r]ights-of-way for Federal Aid material sites." ANCSA allowed the federal government to waive administration of the rights-of-way, which BLM did in 1984. The BLM waiver stated that the State was the grantee of the right-of-way at issue, and instead of providing an expiration date the waiver described the term of duration of the right-of-way as "[p]erpetual." The waiver entitled Ahtna to "any and all interests previously held by the United States as grantor," but the waiver explicitly stated there were no rental or other revenues associated with the right-of-way. The State removed material from the site until 1988, but the State did not use material from the site for the next 20 years. The State began using the site again in 2008. Ahtna demanded compensation for the removal of gravel from the material site and directed the State to cease and desist further entry onto Ahtna lands. The State responded that its right to remove the gravel pre-existed Ahtna's title interest. The State filed suit against Ahtna, and the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The superior court granted summary judgment to the State, concluding that the State had a valid interest in the material site right-of-way under the Federal-Aid Highway Act, and that Ahtna could not cancel the right-of-way for nonuse or abandonment so long as the State operated and maintained the Denali Highway. Ahtna appealed. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that under the assumption that BLM's waiver transferred administrative authority to Ahtna, that authority did not include the right to cancel the State's interest in the material site for nonuse or abandonment without consent from the State. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the superior court's grant of summary judgment to the State. View "Ahtna, Inc. v. Alaska Dept. of Trans. & Public Facilities" on Justia Law

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A quasi-independent governmental agency manages a program designed to improve power generation in small Alaska villages that are located off the electrical grid. One such village believed that the agency did not respect the wishes of village leaders in securing a contract to improve that village's power-generation facility. The village, joined by a company that produces a key component used in improving power generation in village areas, sued the agency. The plaintiffs alleged that the agency erroneously awarded contracts for power generation and that agency employees improperly disclosed the company's trade secrets to its competitor. The superior court dismissed all of the plaintiffs' claims on motions for summary judgment. Because the Supreme Court agreed there were no disputed issues of material fact and the defendants were entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the Court affirmed the decision of the superior court in all respects. View "Powercorp Alaska v. Alaska Energy Authority" on Justia Law

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This case arose from an award by Golden Valley Electric Association (GVEA) of two competitively bid construction contracts on its Northern Intertie Project. In November 2001 GVEA awarded Global Power & Communications, LLC (Global) a $39.4 million contract (Contract NI-8) for construction of the Northern Intertie’s Tanana River flats section. Later GVEA awarded Global an approximately $5.3 million contract (Contract NI-9) for construction of the Northern Intertie’s Tanana River crossing and Fairbanks sections. Subsequently, after Global had been awarded NI-9 and before it had completed work on NI-8, Global presented GVEA with requests for additional compensation (RFIs) totaling approximately $2.4 million in connection with NI-8. GVEA responded that it found "no legitimate basis" to justify Global’s RFIs and rejected Global’s request for additional payment. Global also notified GVEA that Global would submit more RFIs, arising out of both NI-8 and NI-9. In all, Global sought additional compensation totaling $5.7 million under the two contracts. GVEA responded to Global denying most of the RFIs but indicated that it would approve a few and consider partial payment for a few others. Global sued, and a trial court ultimately held in GVEA's favor, awarding it costs under both the contract and the applicable state law. Global appealed, arguing among other things, the trial court abused its discretion in ruling in favor of GVEA. Upon review of the lengthy record from the trial court, the applicable legal authority and legislative history, and the two contracts in question, the Supreme Court partly affirmed and partly vacated the trial court's decision. The case was remanded for: (1) a fee determination regarding GVEA’s "UTPA" claim against Global and (2) a new trial on causation and damages relating to GVEA’s breach of NI-9. View "ASRC Energy Services Power v. Golden Valley Electric" on Justia Law

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Renaissance Resources Alaska, LLC (Renaissance) partnered with Rutter & Wilbanks Corporation (Rutter) to develop an oil field. Renaissance and Rutter acquired a lease to the entire working interest and the majority of the net revenue interest of the field. They then formed a limited liability company, Renaissance Umiat, LLC (Umiat), to which they contributed most of the lease rights. But when they formed Umiat, Renaissance and Rutter did not contribute all of their acquired lease rights to the new company: they retained a 3.75% overriding royalty interest (ORRI). Rutter was eventually unable to meet the capital contributions required by Umiat's operating agreement and forfeited its interest under the terms of the agreement. Rutter filed suit against Renaissance seeking a declaratory judgment that it was entitled to half of the retained 3.75% ORRI. Renaissance argued why it deserved the entire 3.75%: (1) Renaissance held legal title to the 3.75% ORRI; and (2) Rutter could only obtain title through an equitable remedy to which Rutter is not entitled. Upon review, the Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s conclusion that Renaissance's characterization was inaccurate and that Rutter was entitled to title to half of the 3.75% ORRI. Furthermore, Renaissance argued that the superior court should have found an implied term that Rutter would forfeit its share of the 3.75% ORRI if Rutter failed to contribute its share of expenses. The Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s determination that there was not such an implied term in the agreement. View "Renaissance Alaska, LLC, v. Rutter & Wilbanks Corporation" on Justia Law

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Appellant Alaskan Crude Corporation operates an oil and gas unit known as the "Arctic Fortitude Unit." Alaskan Crude’s unit agreement with the Department of Natural Resources set work obligation deadlines that Alaskan Crude was required to meet to continue operating the Unit. In July 2008 the Commissioner found that Alaskan Crude had failed to meet its work obligations, gave notice that Alaskan Crude was in default under its unit agreement, and specified that the Unit would be terminated if Alaskan Crude did not cure the default by a new set of deadlines. Alaskan Crude appealed the Commissioner’s decision to the superior court, arguing that a pending judicial decision in a separate appeal qualified as a force majeure under the unit agreement, preventing Alaskan Crude from meeting its work obligations. It also argued that the Commissioner’s proposed default cure was an improper unilateral amendment of Alaskan Crude’s unit agreement. The superior court affirmed the Commissioner’s findings and decision and Alaskan Crude appealed. Upon review, the Supreme Court concluded that: (1) the pending judicial decision in Alaskan Crude’s separate appeal did not trigger the force majeure clause of the unit agreement; and (2) the Commissioner’s proposed default cure was not a unilateral amendment of Alaskan Crude’s unit agreement. Thus the Court affirmed the decision of the superior court upholding the decision of the Commissioner. View "Alaska Crude Corp. v. Alaska Dept. of Natural Resources" on Justia Law

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Gas producers that lease land from Alaska must pay royalties calculated on the value of the gas produced from the leased area. The royalty may be calculated in one of two methods: the “higher of” pricing or contract pricing. “Higher of” pricing is the default method of calculating royalties and is calculated using market data and the prices of other producers. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) usually does not calculate the royalty payments under “higher of” pricing until years after production. Under contract pricing, the lessee’s price at which it sells gas is used to determine the royalty payment. Appellant Marathon Oil requested contract pricing from 2008 onward and sought retroactive application of contract pricing for 2003-2008. The DNR approved contract pricing from 2008 onward but denied the retroactive application. The superior court affirmed the DNR’s decision. On appeal to the Supreme Court, Marathon argued that the statute that governs contract pricing permitted retroactive application of contract pricing. Upon review of the arguments and the applicable legal authority, the Supreme Court concluded that though the statute was ambiguous, it would defer to the DNR’s interpretation. Accordingly, the Court affirmed the superior court’s decision to uphold the DNR’s order. View "Marathon Oil Co. v. Dep't. of Natural Resources" on Justia Law