I attended a recent public hearing before the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, and I was frankly shocked by the undisguised lack of civility, unprofessional decorum and personal deprecation I witnessed.
As our nation grapples with incredible strife and discord, and as our state faces some of the most pressing problems since statehood, it's vitally important that "we Alaskans" engage in public debate and dialogue that's respectful and productive.
The AOGCC hearing addressed what I had thought would be a straightforward, yet critical question: Should Alaskans have the right to have public notice and comment on hydraulic fracturing (aka "fracking") permits for oil and gas wells?
This is, after all, simply a question about good governance, and whether Alaskans should have a right to know about and weigh-in on certain activities that have the potential to contaminate our publicly owned land, air and water.
But the backlash from the Alaska Oil and Gas Association — and even Gov. Walker's oil and gas adviser — was severe, obnoxious even. The basic message was "we know what we're doing, we have strong rules in place and we don't need pesky Alaskans voicing their opinions."
We have heard all these arguments before. I heard them before the Exxon Valdez oil spill. I heard them before the "state-of-the-art" Steelhead Platform blew up in Cook Inlet in 1997. And I heard them before BP's 200,000-plus gallon spill at Prudhoe Bay in 2006.
And, forget not, each year the oil and gas industry dumps more than 2 billion gallons of toxic wastes into our Cook Inlet. "We know what we are doing?"
My point is this: Laws and rules are all fine and good, but without oversight and accountability, they don't mean much. And based on all the lessons we've learned throughout our democracy, transparency and openness are the much-needed antidotes to closed-door decision-making and insider politics.
At another level, public notice and comment on fracking permits is about public health. Various well stimulation techniques, including fracking, have occurred for many years in Alaska. But with the advent of new drilling techniques and new chemical mixtures to conduct fracking operations, there has been a groundswell of concern over the past decade.
Much of this concern has been focused on the Lower 48, where tighter well spacing and shallower formations in close proximity to drinking water sources have aggravated risks, even including increased seismic activity (earthquakes). Just ask Oklahomans. But new proposed fracking operations on the lower Kenai Peninsula have also ignited legitimate concerns.
For example, residents are concerned about large volumes of water getting pulled from local gravel pits, with the potential to harm water levels in local salmon streams. They are concerned about increased tanker truck traffic moving chemicals and oil — especially in wintry or crowded conditions — over dozens of salmon spawning streams. And they are concerned about possible groundwater contamination, chemical spills and methane releases. Methane is, of course, far and away the worst climate change agent.
As a 2016 report on fracking by Physicians for Social Responsibility notes:
"All together, findings to date from scientific, medical, and journalistic investigations combine to demonstrate that fracking poses significant threats to air, water, health, public safety, climate stability, seismic stability, community cohesion, and long-term economic vitality. Emerging data from a rapidly expanding body of evidence continue to reveal a plethora of recurring problems and harms that cannot be averted or cannot be sufficiently averted through regulatory frameworks. There is no evidence that fracking can operate without threatening public health directly or without imperiling climate stability upon which public health depends."
This conclusion supports the findings of an exhaustive 2016 study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency.
One theme industry pushed time and again at the AOGCC hearing was the "fact" there's no proof of harm from past fracking operations in Alaska. But there's a basic response to that argument: no one's looking. Oil and gas corporations have not looked for groundwater contamination around their fracking operations, and our state and federal agencies certainly have not. So of course they find nothing. And the fact they make this argument at all undermines their very position that we should simply sit back and "trust."
Alaskans must question and demand truthful responses from our governor, our governmental agencies, and the very corporations looking to profit from our Alaska public resources. And while public debate and discourse have never been necessarily neat and clean affairs — especially when contentious issues are at play — it's more important than ever that our public discussions around fracking are open, transparent and respectful.
Alaskans must have a right to know about and to comment on proposed fracking permits which have the distinct lasting potential to harm our salmon streams, pristine waters, air, natural resources, and contribute further to the devastation that is climate change.
Peter Mjos is a 44-year Alaskan physician who serves on the board of directors of Cook Inletkeeper, a public interest group, which asked the AOGCC to provide Alaskans with public notice and comment on hydraulic fracturing operations.