Trump’s offshore drilling plans rattle coastal communities across Alaska

Shell’s Polar Pioneer leaving Dutch Harbor on Oct. 12, 2015, heading for Washington state. (Photo by John Ryan/KUCB)

For years, the debate over offshore drilling in Alaska has focused on the Arctic. But this week, the Trump administration proposed opening almost all Alaska waters to oil and gas leasing, from Southeast to the Bering Strait to the Canadian border.

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That includes areas that have never seen drilling, and it’s raising concerns in Alaska’s coastal communities.

Linda Behnken heads up the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association in Sitka. Asked for her reaction when she first heard the Trump administration’s proposal, Behnken took a deep breath.

“I probably better not say that on tape,” she said.

And that pretty much sums up the response in many of Alaska’s coastal communities, where residents worry that oil and gas development could threaten commercial fisheries and subsistence resources.

Behnken said she’s concerned that an oil spill anywhere in the Gulf of Alaska or Bering Sea could affect fish stocks all over the state.

“It’s really deeply disturbing to see a willingness to place at risk…the renewable resources that are the cornerstone of the economy and people’s way of life,” she said.

That’s a feeling echoed by Mark Vinsel, who runs the United Fishermen of Alaska, representing the state’s commercial fisheries. Vinsel said he’s glad the Trump administration excluded the North Aleutian Basin planning area, which borders Bristol Bay.

But, he said, fishermen haven’t forgotten the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. He said one major lesson from the spill was the need for robust community oversight, and if more waters are opened up to oil and gas development, UFA would want local input modeled after the citizens’ advisory councils in Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet.

Ultimately, Vinsel said, the message is pretty simple: “You need to be careful up here, whatever you’re doing.”

“This is really, really dangerous waters,” he said. “Fishermen know that.”

In Unalaska, Mayor Frank Kelty was taken by surprise when he heard the Trump administration wants to open waters surrounding the Aleutians and Pribilofs to oil exploration.

Kelty said he’s not opposed to oil and gas development, but any oil and gas drilling would have to be done right – and it shouldn’t risk Unalaska’s main commodity: fish.

“We’re a community of 5,000 people that are all totally dependent on the seafood industry,” Kelty said. “I think there’s going to be a lot of push-back, from not just the enviro community but from coastal communities such as mine and other fishery-dependent communities across the country.”

Kelty noted that the Trump administration is also proposing to open waters up and down the East and West Coasts, from Maine to Florida and Washington to California.

The proposal also came as a surprise in Nome. Austin Ahmasuk is a marine advocate with Kawerak, which represents tribes across the Bering Strait region.

He said local communities have made it very clear where they stand: they’ve opposed oil and gas development in their waters for decades.

“They’re areas where our people have hunted and commercially fished for quite a long time,” Ahmasuk said. “It’s where we make our living. So we’re quite concerned about the aggressive nature of this draft proposed program.”

The Trump administration has stressed that this proposal is just a draft. The Interior Department can remove areas from the final plan, depending on feedback from communities.

The proposal will be open for public comment starting Monday, Jan. 8. The comment period will last for the next two months.

Rachel Waldholz covers energy and the environment for Alaska's Energy Desk, a collaboration between Alaska Public Media, KTOO in Juneau and KUCB in Unalaska. Before coming to Anchorage, she spent two years reporting for Raven Radio in Sitka. Rachel studied documentary production at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and her short film, A Confused War won several awards. Her work has appeared on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Marketplace, among other outlets.
rwaldholz (at) alaskapublic (dot) org | 907.550.8432 | About Rachel

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