Whales, salmon more valuable than oil

Dan Strickland

On Aug. 21, deep beneath the West Atlas oil rig in the Timor Sea off Australia's northwest coast, oil and gas began leaking from an as yet unidentified pipeline break. The rig was evacuated, and an oil slick began spreading into an environmentally sensitive area described as a "superhighway" for young turtles and whales. Plans were made to transport another drilling rig to help locate the leak and pump mud into it to stop the flow of oil.

With the transport time and difficulty of the rescue operation, predictions now run close to two months before the leak can be plugged. Somehow, despite improved technology that prompts oil companies to promise negligible environmental risks, these accidents happen -- again and again.

One month from this growing catastrophe, on the 21st of September, comments are due in to U.S. Interior Secretary Salazar on whether we should allow oil and gas development in the Bering Sea and Bristol Bay, in a tract known as the North Aleutian Planning Basin. This has been debated loudly over the summer months, especially when Secretary Salazar came to Anchorage to hear public testimony, and you may be familiar with the arguments. But for those of you who have been taking advantage of this sometime spectacular summer and have been away hiking or fishing, permit me to briefly summarize some of the more salient points:

• The Minerals Management Service estimates the field may yield $7.7 billion over the 25-40 year life of the project.

• The renewable fisheries of the region (annually worth over $2 billion) could contribute $50-$80 billion during the same period.

• Federal studies have predicted at least one major spill and numerous smaller spills if development occurs, spills which we know first hand will be virtually impossible to clean up.

• The oil reserves are estimated to produce a grand total of 36 days worth of national consumption. Natural gas is thought to be less than 2 percent of North America's outer continental shelf reserves.

• The region supports four National Wildlife Refuges, is home to the endangered North Pacific right whale and has sustained a rich subsistence heritage for thousands of years.

• Oil exploration would involve seismic blasts, which studies show reduce fishermen's harvest rates. Atlantic pollock catches in Norway dropped by 90 percent between 2006 and 2007, with the fishermen attributing this to seismic testing.

• With development, drilling muds and cuttings would be discharged into the ecosystem, and tens of thousands of tons of toxic sludge pumped into habitat identified as crucial for halibut, herring, salmon, crab, pollock, cod and other flatfish.

The oil industry is putting forth the contention that they will bring jobs and prosperity to the region, and that with state-of-the-art equipment and adherence to the tough standards levied by watchdog groups, oil and gas development can coincide with our fisheries and our wildlife.

The Australian blowout should serve as a wake-up call, a clear example of the brutal reality of what can happen here in our Bering Sea and Bristol Bay fisheries. This is a new drilling rig (2007) operating from an even newer platform (2008). Australia is not a Third World country with lax environmental laws. If it can happen there, it can happen here. Federal studies show and state openly that it will happen.

We cannot risk a vibrant productive ecosystem that sustains the greatest wild salmon run on earth, and gives us nearly half of our nation's seafood harvest, for an extremely dangerous short-sighted venture which will further enrich the oil companies at our longstanding expense. This may seem an obvious choice, but it is very important that we let our opinions be known.

Secretary Salazar has said that he wants -- and needs -- to hear the thoughts of Alaskans. If we don't speak up loudly, the voices of the oil lobbyists will prevail, and sometime in the not-too-distant future we'll be wondering how we ever permitted this travesty to take place.

Dan Strickland works for Alaska Marine Conservation Council in Anchorage (www.akmarine.org).