Alaska News

Shell's Arctic drilling efforts come under fire in Unalaska

Shell came under criticism at a meeting in Unalaska last week from an unlikely pair, a representative of Greenpeace concerned about global environmental impacts and city official -- and pro-developoment booster -- Frank Kelty, complaining about local impacts brought by the influx of oil company workers filling up the hotel and displacing birders and other tourists.

"Shell's taking over the whole place," said Kelty, referring to the Grand Aleutian Hotel, and citing other impacts. Local residents are having to wait for deliveries from the United Parcel Service, because airplanes are filled up with Shell packages, said Kelty.

Kelty also complained about jammed cell phone service, and slow Internet performance. But the net problem might not be Shell's fault, he quickly added. "We have a lot of Internet problems here as it is," he said.

Kelty, the local government's natural resource analyst and fisheries lobbyist, attended the meeting at the senior center along with City Manager Don Moore. About 35 local residents showed up, most of them opposed to Shell's drilling plans in the Chukchi Sea about 1,000 miles to the north in Arctic Ocean. Many of the same people protested drilling three days later in a coastline rally with the drill rig Polar Pioneer anchored in the background across the bay.

Kelty said more dialogue needs to take place with Shell. He said the Shell fleet reminded him of the "massive invasion" of the 1980s when 35 floating crab processors filled Unalaska Bay, before the rise of shoreside processing plants.

Local businesswoman Kathy Grimnes demanded to know about the city council's involvement. Last month the oil company held a closed-door meeting with city officials and the Coast Guard in the city hall council chamber.

City Manager Moore responded to a question about banning Shell from the Unalaska Marine Center. He said that's not allowable, as the city dock is a public facility. And he was asked about the fees the city is collecting from Shell. At the request of the Dutch Harbor Fisherman, he disclosed that the company pays leasing fees of $5,767 per month for the airport terminal space .


"The base lease area is 694 square feet. The base monthly rent for this space is $0.80 per square foot. There is also an 'Extended Operating Expenses' charge, which covers all ancillary operating costs for the terminal. (Terminal management, operating, and maintenance costs, etc.). This rate is charged to all tenants using space in the terminal. This monthly charge is $7.51 per square foot. So, the basic monthly rental rate is: 80 cents plus $7.50 equals $831 per square foot times 694 square feet equals $5,767.14 per month," Moore said.

"There is also a monthly rate charged for use of the baggage handling area which is pro-rated among all the tenants that use the facility based on the number of passengers each tenant processes in a month. This fee will vary but Shell's base rent is a minimum $5,767 per month," Moore wrote in an email.

The meeting was organized by two visitors, who had earlier protested against Shell in Seattle, where kayakers surrounded oil company vessels: Kurtis Dengler, of Seattle, the nephew of local environmentalist Suzi Golodoff, and George Pletnikoff Jr, of Palmer, the son of a Greenpeace activist originally from the Pribilof Islands.

Well into the meeting, Kelty asked the two, in the interests of "transparency," if they worked for Greenpeace. Dengler said he did work for Greenpeace, and Pletnikoff said he did not. Dengler warned of the difficulty of cleaning up an oil spill in icy Arctic waters.

Local resident Tom Robinson said, the following day, that he felt deceived that Greenpeace's involvement had not been disclosed before the meeting.

Robinson, the president of the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska, urged diplomatic forms of protest, and discouraged more militant methods, specifically, climbing up the anchor chains of oil company vessels. The local Native community, Robinson said, is divided between Shell supporters and opponents.

Suzi Golodoff, who had earlier posted "Fish yes, Shell no" posters on crab pots within view of the Shell fleet, asked Kelty about oil's impacts on fisheries in the Arctic.

Kelty said federally-regulated commercial fishing is not allowed in the Arctic Ocean, though that could later change, citing an abundant saffron cod population. Commercial trawling, longlining, and crabbing is currently banned by order of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, he said.

The only commercial fishing allowed in the Arctic Ocean is state-regulated, the small boat chum salmon gillnet fishery in Kotzebue, now experiencing its best season in years, he said. He also mentioned a Nome area crab fishery in state waters of the northern Bering Sea, near the Arctic Ocean.

But Kelty did say that an oil spill in the Arctic Ocean could harm the plankton that fish consume.

Kelty brought up a national reason for supporting offshore oil drilling.

"They want to get away from being held hostage by the countries in the Middle East," Kelty said.

Local residents at the meeting worried about the global and local impacts of Shell's activity.

"What about the polar bears?" asked local resident Augie Kochuten, who complained at length about the oil business's environmental impacts.

"It's time for the people to say 'we have to do something,''' said Kochuten, adding "I was there for the last revolution."

Resident Jeff Hancock accused Shell personnel of acting like "cowboys," based on their chatter heard on UHF radio channels.

"They don't have any regard for what was here before them," Hancock said.


Shell, meanwhile, continues to wait for final federal approval to start drilling exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea, according to spokeswoman Megan Baldino.

"We are still planning to begin work in the Chukchi Sea in the weeks ahead and are waiting for two final permits (Applications for Permit to Drill) from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement," she said last week.

Literature distributed at the anti-drilling meeting mentioned the recent damage to the hull of the Shell icebreaker Fennica, sustained while the ship was departing Unalaska for the Chukchi Sea, as part of an overall poor track record including the grounding of the oil rig Kulluk.

Baldino said the ship will be repaired at the Vigor Shipyard in Portland, Oregon, and not at Resolve Magone Marine Service in Unalaska where the damage was first examined. The vessel received a 39-inch-long, two-inch-wide gash in the hull when it hit a submerged object in Unalaska Bay while under the control of a marine pilot.

"While we believe interim repairs could be made in Dutch Harbor, our preference is to pursue a conservative course and send it to a shipyard where a permanent fix can be performed. At this time we do not anticipate any impact on our season, as we don't expect to require the vessel until August," Baldino said.

While the cause of the damage remains under investigation, a survey of the underwater environment a few days later by the federal oceanographic ship, Fairweather pointed to shallower water than indicated on nautical charts last updated in 1935.

An uncharted underwater hazard caused another large ship to hit bottom in 2004 in the Baby Islands in Akutan Pass near Unalaska/Dutch Harbor, spilling 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. That was the luxury liner Clipper Odyssey, during an eco-cruise sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund environmental group.

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.