North Slope mayor blasts state for lack of support, ideas in offshore development
June 21st, 2011 | Alex DeMarban
GIRDWOOD - As a coastal development program designed to provide local input approaches its death, the North Slope Borough mayor blasted the state for a lack of leadership on the issue of offshore oil development.
Unlike state officials, Alaska's Congressional delegation has worked with Mayor Ed Itta, he said, drafting legislation to pressure oil companies to use the state's pipeline, rather than ocean tankers, if oil is produced from offshore.
"But other than that, nobody in the state seems to be very excited about it," said Itta. "And that strikes me as odd, very odd. Because unless that oil comes ashore, the state of Alaska will see virtually no benefit from OCS development."
Itta gave his emotional speech on Tuesday afternoon to wrap-up The Arctic Imperative, a three-day summit hosted by online news source Alaska Dispatch that highlighted diminishing ice and expanding opportunities in the Far North.
Shipping oil by tankers instead of by pipeline would also increase the risk of a spill that could devastate the bowhead whales at the center of the North Slope culture and diet, Itta said.
Industry has said there's little chance they'd want to ship by tankers, so why shouldn't the state work to give complete assurance to Alaskans, asked Itta, noting that oil production could be 15 years away.
Itta has worked closely with oil companies, particularly Shell, and they've made concessions to major borough demands meant to protect the environment off North Slope coasts.
Shell has agreed to fund scientific research while working with borough scientists and to remove drilling muds and cuttings instead of letting them fall into the ocean the Inupiat see as their garden.
But it hasn't had that relationship with the state.
"Here at home, here in Alaska, where we'd expect to have a natural affinity and strong partnership with the state, it just isn't happening," he said. "We should be crafting plans with our friends in Juneau on a whole range of issues, at the front end. In this new offshore era, we should be working together to raise the bar on standards for discharge and spill response and cumulative impacts. We should have approached industry together as we asked them to pause operations during our bowhead whale hunt and the bowhead migration, as Shell has agreed to do. Instead it was just us."
The state's involvement seems limited to cheering for oil companies, said Itta in his speech. In comments to permitting agencies, the state doesn't address potential impacts from development. Instead, they've suggested "going full-steam ahead with blanket support for streamlined permitting and minimal restrictions."
"Shades of drill, baby, drill," he said.
"What message does that send to the feds who are struggling also, struggling to find a balanced way forward? It's a one-dimensional message, not very nuanced or thoughtful in my opinion and not terribly helpful to agencies who know that they will be left holding the bag should the worst ever happen, and that is an oil spill in the Arctic."
It's time the state started working with the federal government because federal and international waters is where Alaska's future in oil lies, he said.
"If we as a state don't participate a lot more vigorously in a wide range of concerns at the federal and international level, Alaska - this is difficult for me to say - Alaska will only be seen as a yes man for industry," he said.
In his speech, Itta didn't mention the looming demise of the Alaska Coastal Zone Management Program, on track to sunset at the end of this month because the Senate and House couldn't agree on terms to extend it.
Itta told a reporter after the speech that the possible shut down of the program is one example of a lack of commitment from the state.
Supporters have said the program's closure will cost the state more than $2 million in federal revenue, put lots of state employees out of work and shut down a process meant to give local coastal communities a voice in development.
"If I'm being a little tough on the state of Alaska, it's because as mayor of a municipality, I look to the state for leadership," he said.
"I look to the state for collaboration, cooperation, and I don't think we're maximizing our potential political resources as a state, and that's a shame. We're missing opportunities to influence federal decisions and bring Alaskans together at the same time."
As for the federal government, they can follow the lead of other Arctic nations, giving indigenous organizations such as the Alaska Federation of Natives greater presence in international forums such as the Arctic Council.
It's time the state joined forces with local communities and Native organizations.
"I believe that part of the Arctic Imperative is to overcome our distances, both physical and political. We must recognize that if Alaska's economic future lies under the Arctic Ocean, that decisions governing that future will largely be made in Washington, D.C., and other international venues," he said.
Itta, wearing a seal skin vest with a matching tie, started his speech by singing a song he'd learned from the indigenous residents of Chukotka in Siberian Russia.
He told the audience - comprised of business executives, village mayors, lawmakers and Arctic visionaries - that North Slope villages are seeing the effects of climate change first hand.
This year, the sea ice to reach whaling grounds was almost impassable. That's because winds blew together young, unstable ice to form huge pressure ridges. Ice in the past was older, thicker and less prone to pile up.
Whalers have never seen such conditions, he said.
Slowed by the pressure ridges, crews from Barrow landed only seven whales, about half their traditional spring total.
Itta also said that recently his family and crew went to its ice cellar - once carved from frozen tundra - to get meat from a whale caught by Itta's son. The meat wasn't frozen solid as it should have been this time of year.
"This year, we could actually pull (the meat) out of the ice cellar and start cutting and that is a first for me," he said.
Alex DeMarban can be reached at email@example.com, or by phone at (907) 348-2449