Scientific panel to look at impact of Arctic drilling

Posted: Thursday, January 11, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A panel of independent scientists heard from conservationists, Alaska Natives and oil company representatives during a meeting on the impact of oil and gas drilling on Alaska's North Slope.

The 16-member panel, which met for the first time this week, was convened by the National Research Council to begin an 18-month, $1.5 million study on the impact of 30 years of oil development in Prudhoe Bay.

Biological consultant Mike Joyce, retired from Phillips Alaska Inc., where he managed biological studies on the North Slope, said Wednesday the panel will look at all the impacts of oil development, including biological, physical, social and economic.

Two months ago, the oil industry gave the panel a bibliography containing thousands of items, said Steven D. Taylor, director of environmental policy for BP Exploration Inc., a division of BP.

''There is not a lack of information out there,'' Taylor said.

The oil industry already has spent $100 million on biological studies, he said.

It's likely the panel was convened to appease the environmental groups, said Cam Toohey, executive director of Arctic Power, a lobbying group representing oil companies working in Alaska.

''I'm not sure this is going to tell us anything else,'' Toohey said.

Debate intensified on Arctic oil development after President-elect George W. Bush made it clear that he favors opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's coastal plain to oil development. Environmental groups strongly oppose the move. The White House announced Wednesday President Clinton would not designate ANWR a national monument.

Convening the panel is not an effort by the oil companies to get an easier foothold in ANWR, said Ronnie Chappell, spokesman for BP. Plans for the panel were under way well before the election, he said.

''I think our hope is that it will bring people to a common understanding of what the impact has been,'' Chappell said. ''We think the science is pretty conclusive.''

George M. Ahmaogak, an Inupiat Eskimo and mayor of the North Slope Borough, said previous studies have been done poorly.

''We have been saying all along ... 'Who is going to be responsible to mitigate these impacts?''' said Ahmaogak, who has written the committee a 16-page letter.

For example, he said, the seismic noise from oil and gas development projects has driven whales further offshore, making them harder to subsistence hunt.

Peter H. Van Tuyn, a lawyer for Trustees for Alaska, urged the panel to look beyond the studies offered by the oil companies.

''We think there are huge data gaps,'' he said.

Van Tuyn said he hopes the panel will look closely at certain industry practices, such as reinjecting waste from drilling projects into abandoned wells.

After nearly 50 years of doing business in Alaska, Phillips Alaska has proven that oil development can be done with very little impact, said company spokeswoman Dawn Patience.

''We think the committee ultimately will come to a similar conclusion,'' she said.

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