Royal Dutch Shell Plc  .com Rotating Header Image

Big oil gets help leaving footprints in Alaska

Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Last updated November 20, 2008 9:39 p.m. PT


WITH THAT WONDERFUL sense of federalism she showed America in the fall campaign, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin reportedly remarked to Gov. Chris Gregoire that Alaska fishermen should get dibs on fish in Alaska’s waters.

Isn’t the fleet based down here, and aren’t Puget Sound crab fishermen risking — and occasionally losing — their lives in Bristol Bay, Alaska?

The questions deserve asking because of a) Palin’s tireless pursuit of the limelight, her visage now topping Alaska tourism mailings, and b) the Bush administration’s shadowy moves to eviscerate environmental laws while serving as big oil’s enabler.

On Tuesday, the Bureau of Land Management quietly opened 1 million acres of land in the Bristol Bay region to petroleum and mineral exploration.

The Kvichak River, one of the opened drainages, has the largest sockeye salmon run in the world. The nearby Nushagak River is Alaska’s second-largest producer of king salmon.

At the same time, a just-retired special agent in charge with the Environmental Protection Agency is demanding an investigation of the Justice Department’s recent decision to go easy on British Petroleum.

The case involves the largest oil spill in the history of Alaska’s North Slope, a pipeline leak that went undetected for days and spilled 250,000 gallons of oil onto the tundra.

British Petroleum got off by agreeing to one misdemeanor count and paying a total of $20 million in fines and restitution. The EPA had calculated the appropriate fine levels — depending on economic assumptions — at $58 million all the way up to $672 million.

In a statement submitted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, retired agent Scott West said:

“Never … have I had a significant environmental criminal case shut down by the political arm of Justice, nor have I had a case declined by the Department of Justice before I had been fully able to investigate the case. This is unprecedented in my experience.”

The fundamental fix still applies in the far north, at least for a couple of more months.

The U.S. Supreme Court let off Exxon Mobil Corp. earlier this year, reducing from $2.5 billion to $507 million a punitive damages award to fishermen, native villages, local governments and others harmed by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.

An appellate court already had halved an original $5 billion judgment.

“I know fellow fishermen whose share of the punitive damages award will be less than they’ve paid to their bankruptcy lawyers,” said Dr. Riki Ott, biologist, Cordova fisherma’am and author of the new book “Not One Drop: Betrayal and Courage in the Wake of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.”

Interviewed during her vice presidential campaign, Palin could not name any Supreme Court case other than Roe v. Wade. Hadn’t she heard of the Exxon case?

Palin is pushing herself at us once again.

Mailboxes across America will soon receive come-ons decorated with Palin’s visage and the letterhead “Office of the Governor.” The Alaska Travel Industry Association offers a free Alaska travel guide.

Why has Alaska’s governor, and its congressional delegation, failed to safeguard natural wonders they invite us to visit?

Bristol Bay is home to the world’s largest commercial salmon fishery. Its rivers flow from two of America’s legendary travel destinations, Katmai and Lake Clark national parks.

While running for governor in 2006, Palin cited her roots in a fishing family and appeared to oppose the Pebble Mine, a giant open pit gold-and-copper project proposed in the headwaters country of the Kvichak and Nushagak rivers.

In office, she promptly joined with the mining and petroleum industries to oppose Proposition 4, a clean-water measure on Alaska’s ballot. “We’re going to make sure that mines operate only safely, soundly,” Palin opined. (Prop. 4 was buried beneath industry money.)

Such claims ring familiar.

Prince William Sound fishermen began raising safety questions in the mid-1970s when the Trans-Alaska Pipeline turned Valdez into an oil port.

“The fears about damage from oil spills are like the fears of Henny Penny when she ran to tell the king that the sky was falling,” snorted the Anchorage Times, long (but no longer) the voice of Alaska boomers.

Yogi Berra put it best: It’s déjà vu all over again. As it drills wells in the Chukchi Sea, Shell Oil is delivering the same sheen of assurance to Arctic villages and native subsistence hunters.

“As a company, we could never afford an oil spill in the Arctic. We just can’t afford to have that happen,” Marvin Odum, president of Shell Oil Co., said in an Anchorage speech this month.

Can we believe in enforcement and oversight, when the feds let BP off with a wrist slap?

Oil companies reassure and pledge to take responsibility, but ExxonMobil fought a 14-year legal battle against paying punitive damages its massive 1989 tanker spill.

“How did corporations get so big they can manipulate our laws?” Ott asks.

It’s because we put enforcement of those laws into the hands of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Ted Stevens and Sarah Palin.

The Obama administration will have lots of fixes to unravel.

P-I columnist Joel Connelly can be reached at 206-448-8160 or[email protected]. Follow politics on the P-I’s blog
This website and sisters,,,, and, are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia segment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.