Bristol Bay, Bering Sea no place for oil and gas drilling

Dan Strickland
AL GRILLO / Associated Press archive 1999

March 24, 1989, is a day that will live in infamy for many Alaskans. When the Exxon Valdez fouled Prince William Sound, oil companies' promises about their ability to respond turned out to be false. Commitments to clean every last drop of spilled oil were empty platitudes.

The last two decades have shown that profits are high on the oil industry's list of priorities, while safety measures are implemented only if a strong-willed public insists upon them.

Following the Exxon Valdez spill, Congress withdrew an area in Bristol Bay and the southeast Bering Sea from consideration for oil and gas leasing. In 1998 President Clinton used executive powers to provide yet more protection. Protracted maneuvering took place whereby the American taxpayers bought back this 5.6-million-acre tract, previously leased in 1986 and known as the North Aleutian Basin, for just over $100 million.

The area encompasses one of the most productive and fisheries-rich environments left on earth. Roughly 40 percent of our nation's seafood harvest comes from here. The salmon, herring, halibut, crab, cod and pollock fisheries are worth over $2 billion a year, sustaining thousands of fishermen, processors and workers in affiliated jobs.

The safeguards we put in place, however, began to slip in 2003 when Congress removed protection. In 2007, President Bush withdrew the presidential exemption. The North Aleutian Basin, repurchased once in an environmental bailout, if you will, is scheduled for sale again in 2011.

The federal Minerals Management Service (MMS) estimates that the oil and gas resources in these waters will result in a net economic benefit of $7.7 billion over the 25-40 year life of the project. This revenue will go largely to Outside workers, federal agencies and oil companies.

A recent report by the Marine Conservation Alliance showed the seafood industry remains Alaska's largest private sector employer, generating 56,600 direct and 22,000 indirect jobs annually -- more than the oil and gas and mining industries combined.

Shell Oil, the company showing the most interest in the lease offering, will likely claim that technology has enabled a spill response that can handle any accident. Yet during hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the Gulf of Mexico, close to 700,000 gallons of oil spilled. Not to make light of the hurricanes' devastation, Bering Sea weather often makes the winds off Louisiana seem like warm spring breezes.

When the Selendang Ayu ran aground in December 2004, it was months before any real response could take place, and oil remains today on the beaches near Dutch Harbor and Unalaska. The remoteness of the Bering Sea, with winter ice and the known severity of storms, makes it one of the most difficult places on Earth to contain or remediate spills.

And MMS readily acknowledges that spills will occur. It predicts that if oil contaminates important habitats, the harm may affect significant populations of marine mammals, fish, crabs and birdlife.

Seismic exploration, a necessary part of oil development, has caused Norwegian fishermen to come into conflict with the oil industry. They claim damage to fish has precipitated a 39 percent decline in harvests, 90 percent in the case of Atlantic pollock.

The National Marine Fisheries Service submitted lease sale comments to MMS, citing a woeful lack of knowledge about the region's fisheries and marine life, and called for deleting the area from upcoming lease sales. Experts have identified 35 studies necessary to properly prepare an environmental impact analyses. To date, MMS has initiated only a handful of those studies.

On April 14, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is coming to Anchorage to hear Alaska's voice on oil and gas development in Bristol Bay and the Bering Sea. With our vision sharpened from the prism of the Exxon Valdez, let's stand resoundingly behind renewable resources, a clean environment, and permanent protection for the waters of Bristol Bay and the Bering Sea.

Dan Strickland has been a commercial fisherman in Alaska for over 30 years. He is currently Bristol Bay Resource liaison for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.