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Alaska Journal: The can it?’ vs. should it?’ debate heats up offshore drilling

By Margaret Bauman
Alaska Journal of Commerce
Web posted Sunday, March 23, 2008
 
Another round in the debate over exploration for oil and gas in the North Aleutian Basin began March 18, with opponents asking if it should be allowed, while others discussed how exploration and fisheries could possibly co-exist.

The two-day North Aleutian Basin energy-fisheries workshop, for which Shell Oil contributed $25,000, got underway at a downtown Anchorage hotel. Meanwhile, a group representing residents, fishermen and environmental groups protested the event.

Doug Schneider, information officer for the University of Alaska Sea Grant program, which organized the workshop, said the event was the first in a series of meetings that Sea Grant hoped to hold to discuss the possibility of offshore drilling in the basin, which includes the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery.

The proposed sale of offshore leases by the federal Minerals Management Service isn’t slated until 2011. A number of Bristol Bay residents have said they would approve of onshore exploration, but not offshore, because of concerns that an oil spill would destroy the fisheries, valued at more than $2 billion annually.

Others, citing examples of work done in Cook Inlet, have said they are willing to discuss whether oil and gas development and fisheries could actually co-exist.

Opponents of offshore development said the plans for developing offshore oil and gas resources in Bristol Bay were short-sighted, and criticized what they saw as a bias on the part of the university’s role in the workshop, as well as Shell’s financial backing.

Schneider said that while the university wanted to promote a dialogue on the issue, Sea Grant did not have enough funding to do it alone.

“Why did we take Shell’s money? We don’t have the money to do this,” he said.

The idea for the workshop was sparked when a representative for Shell approached the university about financing some sort of video promotion of the oil company’s good will in Bristol Bay.

University public relations people said no to that idea, but after talking with Sea Grant and the School of Fisheries and Ocean Science, came up with the idea of a community based dialogue, Schneider said.

Schneider also said that in the aftermath of the workshop, representatives of Shell would come to the Fairbanks campus to learn about the research capabilities at the university that could be related to Shell’s interests in Alaska.

“If they like what they see (in the way of research capabilities) they will have to pay for it,” he said.

It’s not an unprecedented proposition. Schneider said the At-Sea Processors Association already funds a great deal of research at the UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Science.

“They don’t get to decide the answers, but they get to ask the questions,” he said. “It’s their money. Most of our budget comes from the federal government and private industry.”

The goals of this first workshop were to facilitate a discussion, look at potential risks and benefits of offshore development, and to discuss ways the university could help with research, “but we need the region to help identify risks and needs,” he said.

Critics of the workshop offered counterpoints at a news conference held several blocks away. They included Tom Tilden, chief of the Curyung Tribal Council in Dillingham; Terry Hoefferle, executive director of Nunamta Aulukestai, an association of eight Bristol Bay Native village corporations; and Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska professor who is with the Marine Advisory Program.

Tilden expressed concern over the lack of representation of subsistence users who live in Bristol Bay on the steering committee that organized the conference.

“We are the people who would be most impacted. We are fishermen,” said Tilden, himself a commercial and subsistence fisherman. “Our salmon goes worldwide. We provide jobs to the nation, to the world. We are an economic base that serves everyone. We can’t just let these big foreign companies come in, destroy and leave with the money.”

Sea Grant’s Schneider agreed more Bristol Bay fishermen should contribute to the discussions.

“We need better representation from Bristol Bay village residents and fishermen. After this meeting, we will have a debriefing and see where we were lacking,” Schneider said.

Hoefferle and the others said they would like to see the debate continue on whether oil and gas exploration should even be allowed at all in the North Aleutian Basin.

“The workshop is asking the wrong question,” Steiner said.

Margaret Bauman can be reached at [email protected].

http://www.alaskajournal.com/stories/032308/hom_20080323032.shtml

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