By Hal Shepherd
Has Alaska ever met an oil and gas operator permit application it doesn’t like?
Well, before Royal Dutch Shell’s “Kulluk” jack-up rig ran aground this week, threatening to spill some 155,000 gallons of diesel fuel into the marine waters outside Kodiak Island, environmentalists and Alaska Native groups had warned governmental officials that the oil and gas industry was ill-prepared for the harsh conditions of Alaska’s marine waters and that state regulators’ reluctance to enforce spill prevention and permitting standards could lead to just such an incident.
Many of these warnings were based on the same factors that caught up with the Kulluk, including marine waters of the State, which, are dominated by extreme tides and temperatures, where high winds, fog and winter ice can make shipping and oil-spill clean-up impossible for significant portions of the year.
The Kulluk incident, however, illustrates that the worst threat to the unique marine and fresh water environments of Alaska is not the State’s dramatically unpredictable weather, or even its hazardous ocean conditions. but, rather, a type of hysteria, starting with the discovery of vast oil fields in Prudhoe Bay in the late 60s, that has not been seen since the Klondike Gold Rush. The legislature recently, for example, spurred the rush to “drill-baby-drill,” through a state law that provides a 100-percent subsidy to the first companies to establish wells in Cook Inlet.
Also, state regulatory agencies, in particular, apparently have never met an industry permit application they don’t like. That includes those with substandard or incomplete information, or that conflict with the permitting rights of individual citizens, and, often, fail to enforce or attempt to dilute oil spill and blowout prevention standards.
One might ask, for example, how Shell got the go ahead to transport the Kulluk, after the company, apparently, forgot about normal shipping conditions in Alaska’s Arctic and the rig was trapped for a week by frigid temperatures and ice at the end of the drilling season and already had a history of mishaps and permit violations?
How, then, does federal and state bias toward the oil and gas industry affect the rights of everyday Alaskans? For one thing, due to the significant number of people who rely on subsistence fishing and hunting resources, Article VIII, Section 3 of the State Constitution provides “[w]herever occurring in their natural state, fish, wildlife and waters are reserved to people for common use.” This could have relevance to the rights of Alaska citizens to have subsistence resource protected from poor management of oil and gas activity.
Similarly, the Alaska Department of Natural Resource’s recent approval of two Temporary Water Use applications submitted by Buccaneer Alaska to withdrawal up to a combined total of 61,000 gallons of water per day from several wells located on the Kenai Peninsula may violate the Alaska Water Use Code which prohibits the issuance of a TWUP when a “significant” amount of water is at stake.
The TWUPS also potentially conflicts with the code’s protection of the “public interest” from land-based oil and gas drilling that may expose people and the environment to highly toxic chemicals used in the drilling process and the fact that the public, typically, has no idea what types of chemicals are being used in such process due to confidentiality regarding drilling process claimed by the operator.
Similarly, land-based oil and gas drilling often has human rights implications.
In the book, “Silent Spring,” pioneering author Racheal Carson writes: “If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.”
Finally, the due process clause of the United States and Alaska’s Constitutions may apply due to the Department of National Resource’s habit of granting TWUPs for the same water which other applicants have requested, particularly, when the other request is to leave the water “instream” for fish or other habitat protection.
The Kulluk, therefore, is simply the visual illustration of an oil and gas development strategy in Alaska which grants special rights to corporations over human rights enjoyed by each Alaska citizen. Unfortunately, without a major change in approach, this could be just the beginning.
Hal Shepherd is director of the Center for Water Advocacy.
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