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Fort Mill Times (South Carolina): Oil and fishing industries hold forum on Bristol Bay drilling

(Published March 18, 2008)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — A public relations campaign is escalating between Royal Dutch Shell PLC and groups who oppose the company’s plans to drill exploratory wells in Bristol Bay, home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery.

Shell was the main sponsor of a public forum on Tuesday aimed to encourage collaboration between the fishing and oil industries, company officials said. Several of the panels focused on how oil rigs and fishing trawlers could theoretically coexist in the Bering Sea.

“It has been a very inclusive process,” said David Holt, a consultant for Shell. “Most of the fishing industry doesn’t really understand oil and gas and most of the oil and gas industry doesn’t understand the fisheries. We’re trying to develop a common language between the two.”

Shell’s $25,000 sponsorship of the forum, held jointly with the University of Alaska, drew criticism from environmentalists, academics and others who said the company is trying to subtly influence public debate about the issue.

“Instead of talking about how fish and oil can coexist in Bristol Bay, the question should be whether or not to lease Bristol Bay to oil and gas right now,” said Rick Steiner, a marine scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and outspoken industry critic. “This workshop is a public relations coup for Shell.”

The fishing industry is divided on the issue of oil and gas exploration in the region, with some expressing tentative support and others passionately opposed. A five-person panel of fishing industry representatives at the conference fell into the former category.

“We realize that oil and gas development can be part of the national agenda to reduce dependence on foreign oil,” Arnie Thompson of the Alaska Crab Coalition told the audience, adding, “We’d like to see more research. This is a high-risk business to our industry.”

The state estimates the fisheries’ combined worth at roughly $2 billion a year. The basin’s energy resources could be worth slightly more than $1 billion a year over a 30-year span, according to industry calculations.

Oil and gas leasing in the region ended nearly two decades ago following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. But with energy prices climbing, the Bush administration recently lifted the leasing ban.

The Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service last year included the king crab, pollock and salmon fisheries of Bristol Bay and the Bering Sea in a proposed plan for offshore oil and gas leasing from 2007 to 2012.

According to Shell’s tentative timeline, lease sales would go forward in 2011 and oil and gas production would start in 2018.

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