A crowd of around 100 packed into a conference room at the Aspen Hotel in Soldotna Thursday evening to discuss a draft of an environmental impact statement for Unocal's planned development at the Swanson River natural gas fields.
The hearing was conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency responsible for granting a right-of-way permit to allow Unocal to build up to 12 miles of roads and 13 miles of pipeline in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is home to Alaska's longest-producing oil and gas fields.
The highly opinionated group was overwhelmingly in favor of granting Unocal a permit to conduct further exploration and development in the refuge. Local politicians were the most vocal in their support of granting the permit, saying the oil industry is vital to the economic health of the Kenai Peninsula.
"The oil and gas industry is something that is very important to us. We want to keep it here," Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dale Bagley told the hearing officers.
Borough assembly President Tim Navarre agreed.
"We're an oil and gas borough, just like Alaska is an oil and gas state," Navarre said.
"There are not enough jobs for local residents," said Soldotna Mayor Dave Carey. "Many young men and women have to move Outside."
Those who voiced concern over further drilling in the refuge argued that developing the refuge would have negative impacts on the abundant wildlife, including wolves, lynx, moose and bear that call the refuge home.
"(Unocal) has a dangerous and unfortunate track record," said Seth Little, representing the Alaska Center for the Environment. "(Their) operations have polluted refuge lands and waters."
Support workers who spend their days working on the Swanson River fields vigorously defended Unocal's environmental policies.
"We take care of the river. Unocal pays us to take care of the river," said Peak Oilfield Services Superintendent Dean Ungrue.
Ungrue also was one of several people who told the hearing that to further delay Unocal's permit would only force the California company to look elsewhere for fossil fuels.
"We are forcing the oil industry out of Alaska. They're tired of these permitting processes," Ungrue said.
Environmentalists argued that the answer to the peninsula's energy and economic questions didn't lie in more drilling, but in finding renewable sources of energy and long-term industrial growth.
"We support long-term, sustainable jobs," said Bob Shavelson, executive director of Homer-based Cook Inlet Keeper.
Shavelson said Alaskans were too reliant on the whims of Outside oil giants.
"Decisions that affect Alaska are not made in Alaska by Alaskans."
Though most of the people who testified Thursday were from the peninsula, one person came all the way from California to participate in the process. Carrie Smith said she was opposed to drilling in the refuge because of its environmentally sensitive status.
Smith called the refuge "a very special and pristine area," and accused Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski of "hypocrisy" for asking for federal air quality money while promoting drilling for fossil fuels.
Smith's comments didn't sit well with the pro-drilling crowd, whose feelings on the subject were summed up by the final speaker of the night, Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Nikiski.
"The people who came up from California, thank you for coming. But you didn't ride a bicycle," said Ward, eliciting laughter and applause from the crowd.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will hold one more hearing on the draft of the environmental impact statement for Unocal's plan to develop satellites for natural gas exploration and development. That hearing will be held Sept. 17 in Arlington, Va. Written comments on the plan can be submitted to Fish and Wildlife until Oct. 1.
Anyone wishing to make a written comment can send it to: Brian Anderson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Natural Resources, Mail Stop 221, 1011 E. Tudor Road, Anchorage, AK 99503.
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