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Reaction to Obama's Decision to Remove North Aleutian Basin from 5-year Leasing Plan: Op-Ed by Sharon Boyette, Aleutians East Borough Administrator

From recent op-ed pieces and news articles, it sounds like the cities, tribes and regional corporations of the Aleutians are the only people not celebrating Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s announcement about the future of offshore oil and gas drilling in Alaska. There have been a lot of congratulatory comments in the press about the win-win compromise that was reached by moving forward on development of the existing leases Chukchi and Beaufort Seas but not in the North Aleutian Basin.  The Aleutians East Borough is disappointed and discouraged that exploration and development in the North Aleutian Basin will be removed from the Interior Department’s Five Year Plan.  We aren’t seeing the win-win.

In the March 2009 public meeting Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar held in Anchorage on the offshore drilling issue, we heard the North Slope Borough express their opposition to oil and gas development off their shores.  We heard them say they felt the industry was not ready to operate in arctic ice conditions.  The federal government ignored the local input and moved ahead with plans to develop the existing leases.  The North Slope Borough also supports onshore development in ANWR, yet that remains closed while this riskier offshore development proceeds.

In the same meeting, the Aleutians East Borough said unequivocally that the time had come for us to support oil and gas development in our region.  We said our natural gas-prone area could be developed safely and responsibly.  We stated our environment and commercial fishing industry would be protected with mitigation measures we had been working on for the past four years with the Minerals Management Service.  We also had been working on our own stringent permitting processes. 

With the Secretary’s announcement, the national environmental groups got a win and the industry is pleased to be able to move forward on existing leases.  But the voices of the North Slope Borough were not heeded. The Aleutians East Borough racked up a big loss in terms of good jobs (5,000 construction, 650 operations and 3,500 support jobs) and tax revenues ($12 billion federal, $850 million in state taxes and $7 billion in royalties).  So did the State of Alaska. 

Although invited to visit the lease sale area, Secretary Salazar went instead to Dillingham during the same Alaska trip.  There he heard residents effectively present their anti-development opinion. By continuing to refer to the upcoming lease sale area as “Bristol Bay” rather than, more accurately, the “North Aleutian Basin”, the visit has been justified along with claims that residents’ opinions were acted on -- even though Dillingham is 200 miles away from the lease sale area.   So opinions of residents closest to the lease area, especially the commercial fishermen of Sand Point, King Cove, Nelson Lagoon, Cold Bay and False Pass, were not heard.  This is like Boston residents determining what should happen in New York City in spite of what New Yorkers say.

Had the Secretary visited our region, perhaps Nelson Lagoon, (closest to the lease sale area) he would have heard that 23 local governments and Aleut tribal councils are in favor of North Aleutian Basin exploration and development.  He would have heard about the many mitigation measures written to protect the commercial and subsistence fishing industry and the environment. 

There is no reason to celebrate in our region.  Here, communities are shrinking and making a decent living based on commercial fishing is getting harder, if not impossible.  So can we stop the congratulations now?  Or at least let’s stop calling it a big win for Alaska. 

Sharon Boyette is the Aleutians East Borough Administrator.

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