South peninsula residents should reexamine opposition to drilling

All Alaskans depend on oil

Posted: Monday, March 03, 2003

More than quite a few years back my father explained America's fascination with the automobile in a way I could immediately grasp. Freedom of mobility once you set out on the road blurs the lines between rich and poor and makes each person a master of their own destiny for a brief moment in time.

Quest for mobility is an innate part of human distaste for monotony and our highways have provided more opportunity for social equalization than we sometimes realize. The price for that has been an inexhaustible search for the oil that feeds our mania and complicates the environment.

Somewhere in the population shuffling that occurs in great part because of those highways, Homer has drawn to itself a number of people who hold the prospect of an oil industry presence with much the same regard as one might have for a plugged and overflowing toilet.

It is also revealing that so many people here (including my friends) who consider themselves to be socially sensitive and highly evolved mortals -- often regard oil-related folks living in Kenai and Nikiski as somehow less sophisticated and enlightened.

Much as people may hesitate to admit it, we have cloistered ourselves on the lower peninsula long enough to have lost sight of what has made white collar and office job life possible here and are unable to smell the last of the fumes our economy is running on.

When did we become so fearful?

I grew up in Cook Inlet when oil rigs were first going in 40 some years ago. Twenty-five years later we had all-time historical highs in salmon

production with gillnets getting wrapped around the platforms by aggressive fishermen.

Now we should worry about the pristine environment impact on fish? One earthquake in Tok and one week of rain on the Kenai Peninsula last fall caused damages in excess of $100 million. One oil spill in Prince William Sound put more than a billion dollars into cleanup jobs. Whatever damage occurred to the ecosystem is not worth even a footnote in the story of what great good oil wealth has done for the economy and evolution of the state of Alaska.

The only honest anti-oil development stance of any real substance is the American NIMBY tradition.

Not wanting development in your back yard because you don't like the way it looks was once regarded as shallow. We now recognize that zoning of activities is a legitimate approach in the public process.

Individual freedom regarding use of land you own cannot perpetually ignore the combined and wrathful interests of your neighbors. Such is the case with Cook Inlet public lands under consideration for oil lease having neighbors in Kachemak Bay who have taken exception.

The questions before the state are straightforward. What proximity should be required of a neighbor in order to have standing in a land-use dispute? Are the state's economic interests greater than the pollution threat? Does historical evidence suggest that the threat is equal to the outcry? Do the "agitatees" demonstrate a balanced understanding of all the issues?

Of all the considerations which weaken local arguments against oil development it is this lack of balance that is most troublesome.

Oil flow is of immeasurable consequence to the development of Alaska. If we are going to be against it in this area, we must at the very least come out with an extremely strong voice in support of oil development in other places. Our failure to recognize the widespread and devastating impacts that would accrue with a sudden and severe reduction in state services from loss of oil revenues is inexcusable.

To be more than just an ineffective voice of dissent we should embrace both the necessity of natural resource extraction and the evolution of environmental protection. If the preservationist choir of Homer resists that balanced image they will have lost much of the opportunity to be taken as seriously as most people of conviction want to be.

Mike Heimbuch is a lifelong Alaskan, who has lived in Homer since 1975. Among other things, he is a commercial fisher, consultant and frequent contributor to newspapers on the Kenai Peninsula.

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