Ulmer, panel ponder BP spill

Posted: Monday, July 12, 2010

University of Alaska Anchorage Chancellor Fran Ulmer returned to Juneau on Thursday for a panel discussion on BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, and its future effects on Alaska.

Ulmer, a former Juneau Mayor, state representative and lieutenant governor, left Friday for Louisiana to serve as a member of the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Spill.

"Our mission is to investigate what happened and what could be done so this tragedy doesn't happen again," she said.

Ulmer attended the forum but did not participate in the panel.

More than 100 gathered in the University of Alaska Southeast's Egan Library, "braving 75 degree weather," said moderator Andy Kline of KXLL radio, to hear a panel of experts talk about what needs to be done to protect Alaska, and how that might be relevant to the Gulf.

Jeffrey Short, a retired research chemist who studied oil impacts for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said not enough was known about the Arctic, where Shell Oil and other companies want to drill in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

"In the Chukchi, we still don't even have a complete list of what the species are," he said.

Just south of the Chukchi, where Shell's summer drilling program was blocked after April's Deepwater Horizon blowout, is a hugely productive marine area just north of the Bering Straits, Short said.

More is at stake than people realize in the Arctic, he said.

"It's not as if it's an arctic desert where nothing grows, it's part of the ocean we should care a lot about," he said.

Speakers said that the pressures to develop oil worldwide means the Arctic's vast undiscovered resources will eventually be tapped.

"I don't see how it is not going to happen, the economic powers are too great, and we've already seen the power BP had over our government," said author Nick Jans, after years of living in the Arctic.

Jans and others said what needs to be done is to make sure drilling is done as safely as possible.

Among the weakness in current regulation is that oil companies are not required to do everything possible to protect the environment from disasters.

"The current law shields the industry from a full consideration of the risk and consequences of what might happen to the ecosystem," said Jim Ayres, former executive director of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council and now president of the Alaska Strategies consulting firm.

The Coastal Zone Management Act gave local communities a role in drilling decisions, Ayres said, but over the last five years its power has been eroded across the country.

"In Alaska, it was removed," he said.

For four successive years, attempts to reassert communities' role have failed in the Alaska Legislature, he said.

Jans said the money brought to Alaska by the oil industry after the discovery of oil brought the industry tremendous influence.

"Everybody got a new school," he said. "There was plumbing, and sometimes it worked."

The state's dependence on oil money means that drilling is here to stay, Jans agreed.

"Every single governor has been pro-oil development, they have to be or they won't get elected," he said.

Offshore oil drilling nearly began in Alaska, said Mike LeVine of the environmental group Oceana.

"Shell was set to drill exploration wells in the Chukchi this summer, then Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank," he said.

Jans said the oil spill response plans that Shell had submitted were clearly inadequate. Shell, he said, had 6,000 feet of boom to protect the entire Arctic.

"If you look at the grocery list of what they had up there, it was appalling," he said.

BP has used nearly half a million feet of boom in the Gulf.

Gov. Sean Parnell's plan for spill response was to call out the National Guard, which Jans said wasn't capable of responding in the rough Chukchi.

"The National Guard could set up their tents on the beach and watch," he said.

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