Dialogue sought on North Aleutian Basin oil and gas development

01/23/2008

Contacts

NR: SG-2008/NR267

Anchorage, Alaska—Fishermen, community leaders, Alaska Natives, scientists, government officials, environmental groups, and representatives from energy companies will meet in Anchorage to discuss what’s needed to safely develop oil and gas in the North Aleutian Basin, a sprawling region that includes part of the salmon-rich Bristol Bay.

The North Aleutian Basin Energy-Fisheries workshop, scheduled for March 18–19 at the Anchorage Marriott Downtown Hotel, is aimed at continuing a dialogue that began last October, when key stakeholders outlined their positions on development and organized the agenda for the March 2008 meeting.

The meeting seeks insights into the economic, social, and environmental questions that must be addressed to make energy development environmentally safe as well as socially and economically beneficial for the region’s residents. It also offers a chance for energy and fisheries industries to learn about each other’s operations.

The Alaska Sea Grant College Program, a marine research, information, and advisory program headquartered at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is coordinating the meetings. Funding for the meeting comes from grants from Shell, Aleutians East Borough, the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, Peter Pan Seafoods, and others.

In 2007, the U.S. Minerals Management Service announced proposed plans to sell oil and gas exploration leases in a part of the North Aleutian Basin beginning in 2011. That announcement came as welcome news to some in the region, such as Stanley Mack, mayor of the Aleutians East Borough.

“We have seen a lot of outmigration because of the lack of jobs,” said Mack. ”I see my role as providing jobs and economic stability, making sure our communities survive and that our schools stay open.”

At stake is the potential revenue energy development might bring to the region. If developed, North Aleutian Basin oil and gas could be worth $3 to $6 billion per year for the next 25 to 40 years, according to the U.S. Minerals Management Service. MMS estimates that region contains 8.6 trillion cubic feet of gas and 750 million barrels of oil or condensate. Shell, one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, expressed interest in developing the energy deposits believed to exist beneath the seafloor.

But of concern to Mack and many others is the impact on the region’s abundant salmon, crab, halibut, pollock and cod fisheries, worth more than $2 billion each year. Possible impacts include oil spills and navigation hazards, as well as competition for limited dock space and loss of jobs as deckhands and others take higher-paying energy jobs.

“We are guarded about fisheries,” said Justine Gundersen, administrator for the Nelson Lagoon Tribal Council. “Fishing is a way of life in our area. But we are open—we will not fight oil development. Fishing is not as prosperous as before. We want diversification. These meetings are so important for learning. We want to protect everything we have, and so we must be at the table.”

Also of concern are issues such as harbors, roads, and other infrastructure, and the social impacts of population growth and cash that would flow into the region.

In offshore oil and gas proposals elsewhere in Alaska, forces pro and con have lined up to voice their views, and opposition has led to litigation. In the case of the North Aleutian Basin, meeting organizer and Alaska Sea Grant director Brian Allee said the goal of the North Aleutian Basin meetings is to find common ground and build cordial, working relationships.

“Alaska Sea Grant is convening these meetings both to help people understand the issues and find ways to work together,” said Allee. “We are doing this years ahead of the actual lease sales, so everyone can have a voice in how the region plans for the expected impacts.”

Allee said he hopes the meetings will evolve into a regular forum for discussion about the research needed to ensure safe development of the region’s resources, and a place for people to find solutions to their concerns. Over time, Allee said the forum might evolve into a citizens oversight council, such as those already in place for Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound. At the very least, Marilyn Crockett, executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, said the meetings would help the fishing and energy industries get to know each other.

“There's a lot that we in the oil industry simply do not know about the fishing industry,” said Crockett. “As well, there is a lot that people outside our industry do not know about the oil and gas industry. This forum provides an opportunity for all of us to better understand each other and build a trust that we all need.”

Following the Anchorage gathering, Alaska Sea Grant is planning a meeting in Kodiak to explain the lease sale and gather input from local residents. That meeting is scheduled for March 21 from 10 a.m.–12:30 p.m. at the Kodiak High School, in conjunction with the Kodiak ComFish trade show. The meeting will include a panel of Kodiak residents discussing the North Aleutian Basin lease sale impacts on Kodiak, and speakers explaining development issues in the region.

“Kodiak is a place that might not directly benefit from the economic activity associated with oil and gas production in the basin,” said Allee, “but Kodiak commercial fishermen would be impacted by a spill or just the presence of the industry. We might expect a different sentiment there.”

Community meetings also are being planned in the North Aleutian Basin/Bristol Bay region itself. Those meetings will be announced as details are finalized.