Alaskans address Interior secretary on offshore drilling

April 14, 2009 

Gov. Sarah Palin told the new secretary of Interior on Tuesday that Alaska needs new offshore oil and gas development or risks an early shutdown of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

"Once that line shuts down, it will mean the end of oil production on the North Slope," Palin said, adding that plans for a new pipeline to carry natural gas to Lower 48 markets are at stake, too.

But at the same meeting in downtown Anchorage, skeptical fishermen raised the specter of the Exxon Valdez oil spill as an example of the dangers of development. The mayor of the North Slope Borough said new oil and gas projects in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas aren't worth the risk.

"That's because spill response (is) virtually impossible in Arctic waters," said Mayor Edward Itta.

This is the battle for the future of oil and gas development in Alaska. It hit the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center on Tuesday morning, as U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made his second stop in Alaska to hear whether oil and gas development off the state's coast is a good idea.

The faces in the crowd told you it was a heavyweight bout.

Along with Palin, all three members of Alaska's congressional delegation weighed in. So did oil industry executives, environmental groups and regional leaders.

Just before leaving office in January, the Bush administration proposed a five-year, national leasing plan for offshore development. Off Alaska's coast it would include lease sales in lower Cook Inlet, federal waters outside Bristol Bay and the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

When President Barack Obama took over, his new Interior secretary, Salazar, put the plans on hold and called for more public input.

That led to Tuesday's meeting.

The day started at 8 a.m., as oil industry boosters in hard hats and union vests marched from Town Square to the civic center, chanting "Who wants work? We do!"

Someone carried a casket representing "American jobs" lost to foreign oil. Arriving outside the Dena'ina Center, the group swarmed around a pair of drilling opponents wearing a polar bear and a puffin outfit who had been waving to passersby. The polar bear's T-shirt read "save me."

a threat to fishing

The conservationists held a rally of their own at noon, serving about 65-pounds of Bristol Bay salmon in Town Square.

As a man pointed a "Keep our oceans wild" sign at passing cars, Homer fisherman Alan Parks helped serve salmon.

He was one of the few people chosen in a kind of lottery to testify in the morning, while Salazar was still at the meeting. (He left after lunch, with other officials hearing the rest of the testimony.)

Parks told the secretary he's been fishing in Alaska since the 1970s and that new outer-continental-shelf development projects need to be deferred in Bristol Bay.

"We cannot let what happened in Prince William Sound happen anywhere else in America," he said, a reference to the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.

Other opponents say new development could threaten Alaska's massive commercial fishing industry, not to mention the subsistence seasons fishermen have used to feed their families for generations.

POSSIBILITY OF JOBS

Drilling supporters argued new exploration and development would create jobs in and outside Alaska while reducing the country's reliance on foreign oil.

Communities in the Aleutians East Borough depend on subsistence and commercial fishing, but that's not enough, said borough mayor Stanley Mack.

School-age children are leaving the region. Fuel prices sky-rocketed, he said. "Sadly, we are losing many of our long-term residents," Mack said in a prepared statement. "Hopefully we can turn that around with responsible oil and gas development."

Shell Alaska General Manager Pete Slaibys said offshore development is nothing new.

"We've drilled 30 wells in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea," he said. "Five wells in the Chukchi and about a dozen wells in offshore, southwest Alaska. ... We've been doing this kind of work since the '80s and the '90s."

KEY ALASKA SUPPLIES

The testimony began with Palin and Alaska's congressional team, as Sen. Mark Begich told Salazar that Alaska hasn't received its fair share of revenue from previous offshore development.

"Oil and gas will continue to supply the majority of this nation's energy for a long time. I believe most of it should come from secure, reliable domestic sources -- especially Alaska," he said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Alaska often feels left out of federal decision making and that the hearings this week appear to be the first of their kind.

"I'm confident that after this series of meetings, that there will be some general agreement that we want to see the development of our resources proceed -- but proceed in a safe and in a timely manner," she said.

what's next?

Salazar has been hearing a lot of this kind of thing lately. Alaska is just one of four states he's been visiting this month as the Obama administration works on its offshore energy plan and decides whether to go ahead with offshore leases in Alaska and elsewhere.

After visits to Louisiana and New Jersey, Salazar stopped in Dillingham on Monday. Salazar said 400 or 500 people had signed up to testify in Anchorage by midmorning.

In a short talk with reporters, Salazar didn't signal what exactly the Obama administration's plans are, but talked about three goals that will guide the offshore energy plan: addressing climate change, increasing national security by reducing spending on overseas oil and creating economic opportunities in the U.S.

In the past, he's said that the president's energy plan will emphasize renewable energy and include new oil and gas development in some coastal areas.

"Whatever we do, there are people who are going to be dissatisfied," he said.

Next, Salazar heads to another meeting -- this one in San Francisco.

Asked about Palin's statement that offshore development was crucial to the creation of a new natural gas pipeline, Salazar said: "The people who are going to build that pipeline are not going to build it unless they know they have a natural gas supply."

"We're not far enough along to start making decisions about where that additional supply might come from," he said.


Find Kyle Hopkins online at adn.com/contact/khopkins or call him at 257-4334.

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