FAIRBANKS — Scores of local residents offered testimony Thursday about a controversial offshore oil leasing plan in the Chukchi Sea, with speakers alternately weighing the need to create Alaska jobs and protect a fragile ecosystem.
A public hearing by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement was held at the Westmark Fairbanks Hotel, marking the first time the federal agency has held a local meeting on the drilling plan. BOEMRE is collecting testimony throughout the state this month after releasing a revised environmental report on the drilling plan.
More than $2 billion in leases were sold in the Chukchi in 2008, but a lawsuit by Native groups and environmental organizations has halted development. A court ordered a more comprehensive environmental analysis of that plan, and a more than 600-page revised report was issued earlier this month.
Opinion in Fairbanks was generally split during hours of testimony, with nearly 100 people filling a conference room at the hotel, wearing buttons, stickers and T-shirts to show their support.
Supporters of the drilling plan stressed the positive influence the development would have on the economy and the dwindling output of the trans-Alaska pipeline. Opponents said an offshore accident could devastate the fragile Arctic Ocean ecosystem.
Much of the testimony dealt with the potential of a catastrophic spill in the Arctic, and whether oil companies are capable of dealing with it in such a challenging environment. The amended BOEMRE report included a section on the challenges of a hypothetical “very large oil spill.” The omission of such a scenario was a common public criticism of the initial report in previous hearings.
Many speakers said development shouldn’t be allowed in such a potentially risky area, pointing to the Gulf of Mexico spill as a warning. Fairbanks resident Merrick Peirce said “Murphy’s Law prevails” in the extreme environment of Alaska.
Greg Egan testified that there are better places to develop than beneath the Arctic Ocean, making his point with a hunting analogy.
“If I had to gut a caribou in my bedroom, I’d do it,” Egan said. “But it’s not the neatest, cleanest place and it’s probably going to come back to haunt me.”
Several oil field workers said that modern technology is being underestimated, and the best techniques will be used to safely conduct offshore drilling. Some also pointed out that the Chukchi drilling plan would be conducted in relatively shallow water.
“We’re being regulated to death,” said Charles Paskvan, a longtime laborer. “We’re doing it right, the technology is there, and we just need to go out there and do it.”
Joseph Boyle, a North Slope laborer, said he didn’t want to see development restricted to the point that Alaska becomes “the biggest national park on Earth.”
“I think a lot of jobs are at stake,” he said. “Mine personally, as well as tens of thousands of others.”
Written comments and testimony from the various hearings will be compiled into a final report for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Written comments are also being taken by BOEMRE through July 11.
A final decision to accept, modify or cancel the initial drilling plan is due from Salazar by Oct. 3.
Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518.