The spill of more than 11 million gallons North Slope crude oil in Prince William Sound is expected to strengthen congressional opposition to oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
But the political fallout from the spill, the worst in U.S. history, most likely will go beyond that debate and encompass the aggressive offshore oil development policies of the Reagan and Bush administrations.
The result may be a double edged sword for Alaska.
It will help buttress the state's objections to oil development in the rich fishing grounds of Bristol Bay, where exploration could begin as early as this summer. But it also lends credence to the assertions of environmentalists that development of the arctic refuge poses far more serious consequences than the state or the oil industry have been willing to concede.
"Even though the arctic refuge and Bristol Bay are very different situations, it will be difficult to distinguish one from the other in the minds of some congressmen," conceded John Katz, special counsel to Gov. Steve Cowper in Washington, D.C.
The state has been pressing Congress to approve a moratorium on development in Bristol Bay, where commercial fishing is a billiondollarayear industry.
Oil companies spent about $95 million last year on leases in the bay, where the potential of a major oil discovery is considered remote. The state and fisheries organizations have warned of the dire consequences of an oil spill there.
The state has, however, opposed environmentalist objections to development of the arctic refuge. If Congress were to open the refuge, considered the most promising prospect for a major oil discovery in the United States, any oil would be sent through the transAlaska pipeline to Valdez.
Katz said the Prince William Sound spill almost certainly will help build the case against Bristol Bay development, while also generating new cause for objections to opening the arctic refuge.
Environmentalists Saturday already were reflecting that line of thinking, calling the Exxon Valdez spill the realization of their worst fears.
"The consequences of an oil spill haven't been raised to any great degree but it is obviously having a major impact," said Lisa Speer, a senior staff scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"I think this is going to become a major part of the debate," Speer said.
"But the impact is not just in Prince William Sound," Speer said. "This tanker was headed for Los Angeles. The vessel could have run aground anywhere. This only goes to demonstrate that development of the arctic refuge has consequences for the whole West Coast. I think people are going to pay attention to this."
Speer said the Exxon Valdez spill is not an isolated incident. She mentioned the spill from the ARCO Anchorage two years ago in Puget Sound and, though not related to North Slope oil development, a barge spill off the coast of Washington earlier this year that spoiled the coastline from Vancouver Island to central Oregon.
"This has implications for all offshore oil development," Speer said, adding that most oil from offshore wells would be moved by tanker.
"We've seen the record of the industry recently and it has not been encouraging," she said.
In the aftermath of the spill, the plethora of reports of environmental contamination and damage from North Slope oil development likely will get greater scrutiny.
"Logically, the Prince William Sound spill should not affect the debate over the development of the arctic refuge, " Katz said. "But I suspect it will. There is an emotional aspect that cannot be overlooked."
Rick Agnew, Republican counsel on the House Interior Committee, said the longterm impact of the spill will depend in large measure on how the cleanup proceeds.
"It would be easy to overstate the impact," he said. "We ought not to do that. There have been accidents before. Nature has a way of recovering from these things."
But the early analysis of the cleanup effort has not been good.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation expressed "concern" over the speed of response to the spill in letters to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard Saturday.
According to a state memo, "the department has not observed adequate containment of the spill and expressed concern that an opportunity is being lost while weather conditions remain conducive for mechanical cleanup of the oil."
According to the memo, an emergency response plan called for a fivehour maximum to reach a spill site farther from Valdez than the Exxon Valdez spill.
"At approximately 18 hours into the response, the department observed that no booms had been deployed to the spill or to protect sensitive areas and that only two of seven skimmers were operating," the memo said.
The spill occurs at a time when Congress is rushing to enact an arctic refuge development bill.
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee earlier this month approved a development bill that is now ready for full Senate consideration.
On the House side, the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee's chairman, Rep. Walter Jones, DN.C., recently introduced a development bill. Jones hopes to complete action on the measure within the next couple of months.
Of all the congressional committees considering the refuge's development, the spill could have its most stinging impact on the merchant marine panel. The committee not only has jurisdiction over development in refuges but how oil is moved along the coast.
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