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Alaskans' voices should be heard in discussion on pipeline lease renewal

Posted: Wednesday, July 17, 2002

That federal and state land managers proposed to give the trans-Alaska oil pipeline another 30-year lease on life on Friday (July 5) came as little surprise to most onlookers.

Offering the options of ending the lease, shortening the lease or renewing the lease, the federal draft environmental impact statement and the state's determination could hardly come to any other conclusion.

The pipeline currently transports about 17 percent of crude oil produced in the United States and has largely done so safely since June 1977. Shutting the thing down, and thereby cutting off the lifeline to North Slope oil production, is clearly an unreasonable thought. Likewise, shortening the lease renewal seems equally unreasonable given assurances the pipe can be maintained for decades to come.

About half of the 800-mile pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to the Valdez Arm is on state or federal lands. Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. operates the line for its owner companies: BP, Phillips and Exxon Mobil. In 1974, the pipeline owners gained 30-year renewable rights-of-way to build and to operate the pipeline system. The state and federal leases expire in 2004 and, rightfully, the requests for renewal are drawing a great deal of discussion -- most of which is aimed at how the pipeline is operated, maintained and overseen. Documents have been drafted after a ''scoping period'' in which public hearings were held around the state.

Now we're to the point where state and federal draft documents hit the table this month, with a corresponding 45-day call for public comment. Hearings will be held around the state, but you don't have to wait for a public hearing to post your comments.

The executive summary of the lengthy environmental impact statement holds that continued operation of the pipeline, ''should have minimal future environmental impacts'' and it assumes continued ''vigilant oversight'' and ''aggressive maintenance.''

Of course those statements raise the question of what is your definition of ''minimal,'' ''vigilant'' and ''aggressive'' with respect to environmental concerns and operation of the pipeline.

As the people who live with the pipeline in our backyard and depend upon and play on the rivers and lands that it crosses, this process should draw a strong showing of Alaskan voices.

One of the most prominent ideas to arise during this discussion has come from The Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility. The group suggests creation of a citizens' advisory group for the pipeline, similar to the group that was created to act as watchdog over operations at Valdez and in Prince William Sound following the 1989 spill. Alyeska funds that group with about $2.5 million a year.

Neither the EIS or the state document address that idea. ''It's very plain and very clear that there is a lot of existing regulatory oversight,'' the federal coordinator of the renewal process at the Joint Pipeline Office told the News-Miner earlier this month.

Maybe so, but the public comment period invites our personal views of the pipeline and its operation. This is your opportunity to lend a little oversight of your own. The Joint Pipeline Office is a cooperative venture of the six federal and seven state agencies that oversee the pipeline. Find copies of the state and federal documents and a link to a comment form at the JPO Web site at www.tapsrenewal.jpo.doi.gov.

-- The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

July 8



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