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Alaska's conference on Arctic oil pipelines has a fatal flaw: Key stakeholders left out

Lois N. Epstein
OPINION: There is no reason an Arctic oil pipeline conference being run by a state agency should have "no time" to hear from conservationists. Attendees will leave with an incomplete idea of operating challenges.
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When the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation holds its Arctic/Cold Regions Oil Pipeline Conference in September, participants will get only a partial picture of the challenges of operating in Alaska because there will be “no time” to hear from the conservation community.

After several significant spills from BP’s North Slope pipelines in 2006, the Alaska Legislature allocated $5 million to evaluate -- and presumably improve -- Alaska’s oil and gas infrastructure. ADEC’s conference on Sept. 17-19 will be part of that effort. But by intentionally excluding speakers from Alaska’s very sophisticated conservation community, ADEC will not meet its conference objectives, especially its goal of informing new entrants to the Alaska oil industry of the unique challenges of operating in Alaska.

Any conference funded by public money should ensure a balance of perspectives and should help strengthen relationships between involved parties. If a speaker representing the Alaska conservation community were at the conference, participants would gain a broader perspective of what the public expects of pipeline operators. Informed operators would be able to design their operations and develop permit applications in ways that address relevant environmental concerns. Without an opportunity to hear those concerns at an early stage, operators may need to address those concerns later when it likely will cost more to do so.

I am an Alaska-licensed engineer who has analyzed Cook Inlet and North Slope pipeline oil spill data for more than a dozen years. I also serve on a Trans-Alaska Pipeline System advisory committee, and on several occasions I have been invited by Congress to present testimony on pipelines. In early August, I asked ADEC to include me as a speaker during its “Stakeholder Involvement” session at the conference to present on federal and state oversight regarding pipeline spill prevention, pipeline siting concerns from the public’s perspective, and the likely consequences of no longer having a Coastal Zone Management Program in Alaska. Though that session has since added a presentation by a state official, I was told at the time that the agenda was full and that there was “no time” for an additional presentation.

New and existing pipeline operations in Alaska will be on public lands. The Alaska conservation community is composed of Alaskans with a legitimate interest in pipeline safety and siting decisions on those lands. ADEC’s upcoming conference is an excellent opportunity to encourage respectful and full public discourse, not to hide concerns from those considering operations in Alaska.

Although I’m disappointed that the state turned down my proposed presentation, my greater concern is that the state of Alaska seeks to control information flow and dialogue, and does not consider it prudent and appropriate to provide industry and the public at large with the full range of perspectives on issues involving key stakeholders.

Lois N. Epstein, P.E. is director of The Wilderness Society's arctic program.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.