How Crude Can They Get?

Alaska still rolls over for Big Oil


An offshore platform in cook inletMarch 24 marked the passage of 15 years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill. I’ll never forget walking the oiled beaches the week Exxon declared the Prince William Sound “clean.” Some of the beaches looked spotless, but walking on them was surreal. It felt as if I were negotiating a bed of Jell-O; oil was lying just below the surface. To this day, oil haunts the ecosystem. It may for decades.

The state and federal administrations are pushing oil development and exploration in parts of Alaska that have historically been off-limits. Oil industry champion Frank Murkowski, a long-time senator, is now governor. With the support of the Bush administration, Alaska’s renowned fisheries and coastal waters risk becoming industrial zones. These still-stunning places are prime habitat for Alaska salmon.

The Lower Cook Inlet, the Alaska Peninsula, Copper River Delta, Beaufort Sea, Norton Sound, Chukchi Sea, and Bristol Bay are coastal regions in jeopardy. Western Arctic and other interior regions are also threatened by gas or oil development.

We need to ask ourselves: fish or oil?

A Legacy of False Promises
While some blamed the despoiling of the Sound on a drunken captain, or on Exxon, the reality is that the oil industry as a whole, the State of Alaska, and the federal government were responsible. A tradition of arrogance, negation, and complacency culminated in the Exxon spill.

Setting a precedent for how the oil industry would be catered to in Alaska, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) — the nation’s first major environmental protection bill — was waived by both the national House and Senate in the passage of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization Act (TAPAA) in 1973. Environmental and fishing groups’ warnings were countered with industry reports and reassurances. (AK Senator Ted Stevens is said to have promised Cordova fishers that “not one drop of oil” would ever hit the Sound).

Environmentalists did win protections in federal right-of-way and state lease agreements. Stringent environmental requirements were established for the pipeline and marine transportation system. But by 1989, these promises and rules had been forgotten.

As a reaction to the Exxon Valdez spill, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA), which set stricter requirements for marine transportation of oil. Though the OPA passed with much fanfare, complacency remains in Alaska. Only 6 of 25 tankers that travel the Sound are double-hulled, as OPA requires; the deadline for compliance is 2015. Industry continues to press for exemptions from OPA. Exxon says it may never build double-hulled tankers. Most tankers are no longer owned by the companies shipping the oil. Rather, tanker ownership is intentionally complex, distributed among companies in various countries, so that holding any entity financially responsible for spills is now nearly impossible.

With a rash of new oil development proposals, there are reasons to be concerned about what appears to be business-as-usual in the state. The State of Alaska’s comments regarding recent lease sales in the Cook Inlet declared, “The Legislature formulates public policy for the State of Alaska and not environmental special interest groups.”

If you asked the constituents of the Matanuska Valley, they’d likely say the Legislature makes policy for the oil and gas industry.

Closed-door discussions among legislators are commonplace. One representative,[who?] who was also a $40,000-per-year consultant to an oil and gas company,[which?] pushed a bill last fall that made it easier for his company to drill for coalbed methane under Matanuska Valley homes, schools, and businesses. He claimed there was no conflict of interest. While the public is excluded, industry representatives are invited to private meetings. Local groups attempting to enforce state environmental laws are met with fast-tracked legislation allowing for exemptions. For example, an Alaska Supreme Court decision that found a Cook Inlet drilling project in violation of state coastal law was quickly rendered moot by last-minute legislation. Recent bills supported by Governor Murkowski specifically seek to reduce or eliminate the public voice. Changes to the Alaska Coastal Zone Management Program further weaken the ability of locals to protect their coasts.

According to the Cook Inlet Keeper, an industry watchdog group, the fall 2003 Alaska legislative session brought with it “the sharpest attacks on environmental protections and citizen participation since Statehood.” Taking a page from the Bush administration, “permit streamlining” is the rhetoric of choice in the Alaska statehouse. The Murkowski administration, says Cook Inlet Keeper, “rammed through changes which virtually eliminate effective citizen and community input.”

The Lingering Effects of Oil and its Industry
The pervasive effects of the spill have been studied by a host of scientists over the last 15 years. A recent synopsis of these studies, in Science (Dec.03), shows “unexpected persistence of toxic subsurface oil and chronic exposures… continue to affect wildlife.” Today, one does not have to look hard to find pockets of noxious tarry sand. There is often newly exposed oil along the shores of the Gulf of Alaska. A 2001 survey found oil in intertidal subsurface sediments and high-intertidal zones. On many beaches, mussel beds, a staple for much marine wildlife, harbor masses of toxic oil. Wildlife continues to be affected either through contaminated food sources or by exposure to leaching oil.

Studies of the Exxon Valdez document in no uncertain terms the chronic effects of oil on the ecosystem. Chronic exposure impairs the reproduction, longevity, and health of a host of animals and marine life. Loss of intertidal and shoreline vegetation and contamination of invertebrates cause long term damage as well, including loss of food and shelter, and invasions of opportunistic species such as barnacles.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), found in crude oil, are proving to be far more toxic than previously recognized. The US EPA conducted a study in 2003 on native subsistence foods in four native village areas in the Cook Inlet. Three of the villages were affected by the Exxon spill, and one was located near industrial upper Cook Inlet. The results showed global contaminants (mercury, organochlorine pesticides, and PCBs) and several PAH compounds in the native food. Pink salmon showed the highest concentrations of PAH. Clearly, marine oil spills and waste discharges do not quickly degrade and disperse as industry argues.

Land-based spills and chronic discharges are as bad as, if not worse than, spills at sea. Oil-related discharges infuse contaminants into surface- and groundwater for years. As petroleum’s toxic chemicals work their way up the food chain, they eventually harm the entire ecosystem, including large species such as whales–and humans. In a corner of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, ongoing waste discharges and spills have polluted large areas, with the toxins causing deformities in frogs and tainting groundwater.

Salmon in a light cadmium reduction
Unbelievably, the state and federal governments want to expose Alaska’s world-famous salmon fisheries to the toxic waste of the oil industry. The Lower Cook Inlet and Bristol Bay are both at risk.

At the same time, some boroughs and fishery groups have launched media campaigns touting the benefits of wild salmon over salmon from fish farms. Promoting wild salmon is an attempt to stimulate an industry that has taken years of economic blows. Many rural communities have historically relied on subsistence and commercial fisheries. Competition from farmed salmon and threadfin bream (a white fish found in Asian waters) have pushed the price for Alaskan salmon and pollock so low that processors have closed. Some fishers have simply docked their boats, as it costs too much to fish. Oddly, while the state looks for exemptions and tax credits for the oil and gas industry, it has cut funding to rural fishing communities by up to 40 percent. The poor economy is exactly why some people in Bristol Bay, for example, now want oil development.

Abandoning the fishing industry is not a smart move. The economic potential for wild salmon and its value added products (salmon skins, oils, fertilizer) is still promising. The pharmaceutical, food, and cosmetics industries use salmon byproducts, most of which – 40 percent of Alaska’s total catch – are now discarded at sea. Whole Foods is running a processing facility in Yakutat, supporting local fishers and contributing to responsible fishing.

Tourism is also a key industry in these areas, with further development potential. Where there are world-class views, fish, and wildlife, there are people who will pay to experience them. One million people travel to see the Kenai Peninsula each year. These areas rely on the economic value of a pristine and healthy environment for these primary economies.

According to a study by Steve Colt of the Institute of Social and Economic Research (University of Alaska), “84,000 [out of 317,000]… jobs are closely linked to the health of Alaska’s ecosystems. These jobs produce almost $2.6 billion of income for Alaska workers… six times the number of direct petroleum jobs and more than twice the employment of the petroleum, mining, and construction industries combined.”

Bristol Bay and the Lower Cook Inlet
In Bristol Bay, a state exploratory license is being prepared on 500,000 acres in the Nushagak River watershed. Also planned is a lease sale along the Alaska Peninsula (King Salmon to Cold Bay) of approximately 1.5 million offshore acres and 3.5 million onshore acres. While the state claims that only onshore directional drilling will be allowed, these stipulations are not in the lease language.

Nushagak River is the second largest river system in the bay, and all five species of salmon spawn in its watershed. The area is a migratory pathway for thousands of birds, including the threatened Steller’s eider and the state’s second largest population of tundra swans. The region also supports Alaska’s largest brown bear population.

The lifting of the federal moratorium in the Bay itself also merits concern. Bristol Bay is the “single most important region of the US Outer Continental Shelf for the conservation of marine mammals and endangered species and the protection and management of fishery resources,” according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Bristol Bay holds the world’s largest run of sockeye salmon, a key halibut nursery, valuable herring and crab fisheries, and critical habitat for other marine species.

Though President Clinton’s executive order barring drilling still stands, state leasing in the area may pave the way for offshore leases. The state and Bristol Bay Native Corporation have signed an agreement to open the outer continental shelf of Bristol Bay to federal lease sales. Local resistance to oil development was what initially motivated Congress to include Bristol Bay in the moratorium. However, this region is currently plagued by economic problems and some believe oil is the answer.

Onshore or offshore, oil development threatens Bristol Bay. It is impractical to believe that an oil spill could be managed or the watershed protected from waste discharge.

The lower Cook Inlet is a unique and beautiful body of water in Alaska. It is headed by sensitive, life-giving mudflats, estuaries, and rivers; while at the opposite end, its zooplankton-rich waters flow into the Gulf of Alaska. While the upper Cook Inlet has had oil development since the late 1950s, it is still a biologically critical area. The lower Cook Inlet is argued to be, “one of the most productive high latitude shelf areas in the world.”

Lower Cook remains a haven for otters, Steller sea lions, five species of salmon, and humpback, beluga, and orcas. Thousands of coastal and inland bird species migrate through or live in the area. There are extensive salmon-spawning rivers and streams, including the famous McNeil River where 40 or more grizzlies converge each summer. Several state and national parks abut the Cook Inlet: Lake Clark National Park, Katmai National Park, McNeill River State Game Sanctuary, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, as well as numerous state critical habitat areas such as Kachemak Bay. The Cook has world-class salmon and halibut fisheries, several communities that depend on them, and a renowned tourist industry.

Of critical concern is the Cook Inlet beluga whale, which is a geographically isolated and genetically distinct population. Over 20 belugas have died in the last year. The population has declined from 1,300 to 250 or 300 in a decade. Hunting has been severly curtailed; other factors are causing the decline. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) did not support listing the beluga as an Endangered Species. Listed only as “depleted,” the beluga must endure seismic testing, toxic waste, and sewage discharges in some of its prime habitat. Sadly, not one study has been undertaken to determine the effects of industry noise or discharge on Cook Inlet belugas in over 40 years of development. The lower Cook Inlet is its last refuge.

As the Journal goes to print, the first of two federal lease sales comes up. Approximately 2.5 million acres is to be leased for oil development over the next 2 years. The second sale will occur in 2006, with public comment in late 2005. While 2003’s public comments overwhelmingly stated “no drilling,” the Minerals Management Service stayed true to Bush’s agenda. Notably the Cook Inlet’s alternative to oil energy, tidal power, was not even considered, though some say it could power the state.

Oil exploration and drilling in lower Cook Inlet would threaten the tourist industry, sport and commercial fisheries, native subsistence and traditions, the ecological stability of the area, its wildlife, and its stunning scenic beauty.

Fish and Oil Don’t Mix
If any place models the future of Bristol Bay and lower Cook Inlet development, it is the upper Cook Inlet. Bob Shavelson of the Cook Inlet Keeper, citing the EPA 2000 Toxic Release Inventory, says “Cook Inlet leads the state in manufacturing-related toxic discharges, with more than 1.67 million pounds of toxic pollution released to the region’s air, water, and land. Due to reporting limitations, this figure does not include the billions of gallons of toxic production water and drilling wastes from Cook Inlet oil and gas operations.”

Though the US Coast Guard monitors vessels — and tugboats escort tankers — in Prince William Sound, the Cook still lacks these basic OPA protections. Claiming it is still evaluating how to apply OPA to the Cook, the Coast Guard allows single hull tankers to traverse the Inlet with little assistance in some of the roughest conditions in the world – navigating ice, swift currents, shifting shoals, and high winds. Two years before the Exxon spill, a tanker hit a rock and spilled 159,000 gallons of oil into the Cook.

A 2002 Cook Inlet Keeper study shows alarming numbers of oil pipeline spills on, and offshore of, the upper Cook Inlet. There are over 900 miles of active oil and gas pipelines in the area. The federal EPA, from which the state takes its cues, has exempted the Cook Inlet from Clean Water Act standards in their National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit requirements for waste disposal. Shavelson notes that “the Clean Water Act permit that allows them to dump does not require them to monitor ambient water quality.” As reported in the Earth Island Journal (Winter 98/99), while effluent must be monitored, the water is tested at the edge of a diluted “mixing zone.” Notably, exploratory drilling does not require an environmental impact statement. In fact, offshore exploration drilling wastes are legally dumped directly into the marine ecosystem.

Arguments that oil and fisheries can co-exist due to “modern” technologies are being tossed around. But the facts remain that the oil industry in Alaska has an extremely bad history of compliance with environmental laws. In addition, both state and federal impact statements for oil leases severely under-represent the potential effects of oil development on the lower Cook’s residents and their commercial and subsistence economies and the ecology of the region, and disregard a history of upper Cook Inlet industry violations and oil spills. The Minerals Management Service estimates a 19 percent chance of a large oil spill with the Cook Inlet area-wide lease sale; yet it calls such a spill “unlikely.” Claiming to work with “leadership” in the rural communities, the state effectively disenfranchises residents. Neither the state nor federal agencies have really tried to educate local residents about the real risks of oil development.

Preserving the lower Cook Inlet and Bristol Bay should be paramount. The fundamental question is of values: will we be willing to sacrifice unique ecosystems and world-class fisheries for oil?

The nation can help by choosing wild Alaskan salmon, not farmed; by writing our legislators and demanding moratoriums on both areas; demanding Endangered status for beluga; and by writing comments for lease sales (see list of contacts). Cook Inlet NPDES permits are being renewed this year. Contact AlaskaWatch or Cook Inlet Keeper for how to comment.

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