Interior secretary to meet with Alaskans

Kyle Hopkins
PATRICK SEMANSKY / The Associated Press

Oil executives and environmentalists, fishermen and Native corporate leaders will argue over the future of Alaska's oil and gas development Tuesday as the new U.S. Interior secretary comes to town.

The debate is over plans to lease federal water around the state to oil and gas companies. Supporters says such offshore production would create thousands of jobs and lessen the United States' dependence on foreign fuel. Foes counter that development would put historical subsistence and commercial fishing industries in jeopardy from spills.

That's where Ken Salazar, President Barack Obama's new secretary of the Interior, comes in.

After a stop in Dillingham on Monday, Salazar planned to listen to hours of testimony on the topic today at the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage.

Gov. Sarah Palin and members of the state's congressional delegation are expected to talk, but anyone who successfully signs up can make their case.

The meeting begins at 9 a.m.

It's one of a series of public hearings the Department of the Interior is holding in four states. Salazar has already visited New Orleans and Atlantic City, N.J.

"He's gotten strong comments and opinions both sides," said Interior Department spokesman Frank Quimby. "People who feel that (conventional resources like oil and gas) are absolutely invaluable and we cannot put them off-bounds at this point -- and others who feel that we need to start developing renewable resources immediately and we need to be reducing the amount of oil and gas developed."

In Dillingham on Monday, Salazar heard fears that offshore leases near there could hamper the region's fishing industry.

Just before Obama took office, the outgoing Bush administration proposed a national leasing program spanning five years. It would include lease sales in lower Cook Inlet, federal waters outside Bristol Bay, and the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

When Salazar took over this winter, he said he wanted more public comment, and he plans to use what he hears from the hearings to help tailor the Obama administration's offshore energy plan.

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