Offshore Alaska ? With Caution

By Dave Donaldson

The candidates on the trail during this year’s gubernatorial races are beginning to hear from voters about the B-P Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico – with memories of what Alaska went through during the Exxon-Valdez spill and with an eye toward the plans for off-shore drilling in the Chukchi Sea currently set to begin this summer. 

What they are hearing is that the  public is watching and hearing news reports from the Gulf of Mexico as B-P’s Deep Horizon rig continues its discharge of crude oil – now touching the Louisiana shoreline.   And while it’s not at their top of the things people want to talk about,   Alaskans are beginning to bring it up.

It’s not all negative 0r alarmist, though.   Each of the candidates say that voters also recognize substantial differences in the jobs at hand –in the Gulf of Mexico, B-P is working a mile below the surface.  In Alaska, Shell is planning to drill at a hundred fifty feet.  And Governor Parnell says …  that matters.

There’s a distinction there in safe operations and the ability to stop anything.  But frankly, I’m in prevention mode.  I want to see these things prevented,   so we don’t have to face this kind of disaster.   My sense is the conditions are so different and yet we want to learn everything we can from what’s happened in the Gulf.  There certainly is a balance of factors.

Shell’s Arctic drilling is a federal project on the Outer Continental Shelf – it is not directed by any state regulatory agency.  But Parnell says the state has consistently been involved in the work from the start – and is watching every move off the coast.

We’ve learned a lot from the Exxon-Valdez.   I think we can learn a lot more from what’s happened in the Gulf.  And yet, at the same time,  I think we ought to be moving forward with exploration.

Bill Walker, who’s challenging Parnell for the Republican nomination,  agrees.  But he does see the Gulf spill affecting Alaska’s future – if only in more litigation over the issue and calls for more scrutiny over what’s done here.  However, he says while the large fields are offshore – and they’re the most likely places that will have any significant affect on the oil pipeline’s continued operation,  there is also one push left for onshore oil development.

We should be able to develop ANWR in such a way onshore with the proven technology that we have.   The example that we should be making is While we’re trying to sort out the issues of offshore, let’s make sure that we develop onshore to the maximum extent safely that can be done; and developing ANWR is a classic example of that.

Walker says the Gulf oil spill also puts more emphasis on the need for natural gas development.

Democrat Bob Poe agrees with the others – that the Shell project is being done differently and in different conditions than the Gulf of Mexico wells.  He says people he talks to recognize that – and they recognize the state still needs the oil.  He calls them “realistic.”   Offshore in Alaska has been done safely for thirty years – and oil and gas pay the bills here.   Keeping support for the project, however, is a job for the oil companies to undertake.

What really needs to happen is Shell and Conoco and others that are planning to do offshore ought to step up and provide very clear assurances to Alaskans that what we’ve seen in the Deep Horizon event can’t happen here.

Poe adds that the Gulf spill raises the question of the state’s financial resources to deal with any emergency that comes up.   Right now, the Gulf of Mexico states get a share of federal royalty that’s about four times more than what Alaska will get.   It was a response to Hurricane Katrina damage along the Gulf coast.   However, Poe says now is the time for the state to intensify its push for a larger revenue share based just on the potential risk from offshore development.  He says Alaska should become “a fixture at the doorstep” of the lower forty eight until the share is increased.


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