UAA's Ulmer named to commission investigating Gulf oil spill

Elizabeth Bluemink

University of Alaska Anchorage Chancellor Fran Ulmer will serve on the seven-member presidential commission investigating the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the White House confirmed Monday.

President Barack Obama said he has tasked the commission to "thoroughly examine the spill and its causes, so that we never face such a catastrophe again."

Ulmer has spent her career working on a range of divisive issues, from fisheries management to federal election reform. She was a state legislator during the Exxon Valdez tanker oil spill 21 years ago and served on the Alaska Legislature's special committee that investigated it. BP's leaking oil well in the Gulf is now believed to have surpassed the Exxon Valdez spill in the amount of oil spilled.

In an e-mail to UAA employees on Monday, Ulmer said her "dual role" as chancellor and commission member will allow her to serve as a link between the spill commission and University of Alaska researchers who work on oil spill response and prevention.

She also said in the e-mail that she wants to be a bridge between Alaskans, "particularly those who have been affected by the Exxon Valdez spill, and those recommending the additional changes needed to prevent further disasters."

In her UAA role, Ulmer has also been involved in discussions about offshore drilling near Alaska's Arctic coastline before the Gulf spill prompted the Obama administration to put those projects on hold.

For example, Ulmer has participated in several forums and workshops related to offshore drilling proposed off Alaska's Arctic coast. Last year, she testified at a federal hearing convened in Anchorage by the White House Council on Environmental Quality about the need for increased research in the Arctic, though she did not mention offshore drilling.

Shell Oil -- which saw its plans for drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas this summer dashed in the wake of the Gulf spill -- doesn't count Ulmer as a supporter or an opponent of its plans.

"She understands the potential of the Alaska offshore and brings a unique perspective to frontier development -- the upside, of course, but also the challenges," said Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell Alaska, which has spent more than $1 billion to acquire exploration leases in the two seas.

"Alaska is fortunate to have such an articulate voice at the table," Smith said.

Ulmer last week recalled traveling to Cordova to attend a jam-packed public meeting about the 1989 spill during which people were struggling with their emotions -- some of them crying -- due to their fear, frustration and the sense of loss of control over their livelihoods and their future.

She said major oil spills, like other disasters are a reminder that bad things can happen "on our watch" and they raise questions about where the line should be drawn in relationships between regulators and private industry.

"I suspect, as a nation, we're going to have some serious discussions prompted by (the Gulf of Mexico) spill," she said, noting the Exxon Valdez disaster resulted in new oil-pollution laws and new rules for oil companies operating in Prince William Sound, including the phase-out of single-hulled tankers and new requirements for tug escorts and spill-response training.

The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling will be co-chaired by former Florida Sen. Bob Graham and former federal Environmental Protection Agency chief William Reilly, who ran the agency during the Exxon spill.

The White House on Monday also announced the spill commission's five other members, who include:

• Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. She has specialized in marine ecosystems and clean energy.

• Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. He is from Louisiana and is known for his research of the environmental effects of offshore energy development.

• Terry Garcia, a former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration assistant secretary who now serves as the executive vice president for mission programs at the National Geographic Society. He was NOAA's general counsel during the Exxon Valdez spill and led the implementation of the restoration plan for Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Mexico.

• Cherry Murray, dean of the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Obama said recently he has authorized the spill commission to hold public hearings and request information from government, nonprofits, experts in the oil and gas industry, and BP, Transocean, Halliburton and other companies.

Graham later told reporters that the commission has been granted subpoena power but he doesn't know if the members will need it.

"In doing this work, they have my full support to follow the facts wherever they may lead -- without fear or favor," Obama said June 1. "And I'm directing them to report back in six months with options for how we can prevent and mitigate the impact of any future spills that result from offshore drilling."

Ulmer was the state's lieutenant governor from 1994 to 2002 during the Tony Knowles administration and served in the state House of Representatives from 1987 to 1994 as a Democrat. She ran for governor in 2002 but lost to Frank Murkowski.

She is a former Juneau mayor and has worked on national commissions working on climate change, election reform and fisheries issues.

Ulmer was the director of the Institute for Social and Economic Research at UAA before she took the job of chancellor. She plans to retire as chancellor in May 2011, according to UAA. She will continue as chancellor while serving on the oil spill commission, UAA said.

Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at or call 257-4317.