Offshore drilling public meeting draws supporters, critics and criticism

Alaskans enter comments on the Trump administration’s offshore drilling draft proposal at a meeting held in Anchorage on Feb. 21, 2018 (Photo by Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Alaskans gathered in Anchorage this week to weigh in on the Trump administration’s proposal to open almost all Alaska’s federal waters to oil and gas development.

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The Wednesday night meeting was the only opportunity for Alaskans to comment on the draft proposal in person. But it wasn’t the meeting some participants had hoped for.

When it came to the 100 or so Alaskans who showed up to the meeting, there were no surprises. Outside, a group of protesters gathered, waving signs and chanting about the potential environmental consequences of offshore drilling. Inside, a pro-industry group had rented a room by the meeting to hold their own mini-rally, during which speakers extolled the economic promise of oil development off Alaska’s shorelines.

But once participants got to the meeting itself, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) took over the choreography. Citizens were greeted by a video projected on a large screen, offering a cheery explanation of the Trump administration’s sweeping offshore drilling proposal.

“Based on comments received from citizens, elected officials, tribes and others, as well as BOEM’s analysis, the Secretary made the decision to consider the areas shown on this map for potential oil and gas leasing,” the video’s narrator said.

A map of Alaska flashed across the screen, surrounded by potential areas for oil and gas development. Everywhere from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Alaska is under consideration for offshore drilling under the Trump administration’s draft proposal; only the Bristol Bay region is off the table.

“This video plays on a loop so we encourage people to come in here and watch it,” BOEM spokesperson John Callahan said.

In the neighboring room, Callahan introduced friendly federal employees standing behind tables, ready to explain the complex bureaucratic process the federal government uses to decide where drilling should and shouldn’t be allowed.

Jason Brune of the Consumer Energy Alliance Alaska held a gathering for supporters of offshore oil development in a room next to the meeting. (Photo by Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

By now you might be wondering: at what point in this process did Alaskans get to speak out?

“Here are the stations where people input their comments,” Callahan said, pointing to a table near the doorway.

BOEM has changed how it runs public meetings. At this forum, there was no podium and no formal process for participants to give speeches or listen to what other Alaskans had to say about the Trump administration’s offshore drilling proposal. Rather, there was a line of five laptops, where meeting attendees quietly typed in their comments.

Those comments are available to read at Reporters were also free to chase down people at the meeting and ask them what they wrote in their comments.

In the hallways, several participants had complaints about the meeting itself.

“I was here to voice my frustration that there was no comment drawn from coastal communities, no meetings were held in any coastal communities,” Noah Sunflower with the Alaska Marine Conservation Council said.

Anchorage is hundreds of miles away from parts of Alaska that could be directly affected by the draft offshore drilling proposal — fishing ports like Dutch Harbor, or North Slope villages like Kaktovik. This time around, there were no meetings in those places. Sunflower didn’t think that was fair. Neither did Adrienne Titus, who is originally from Unalakleet but now lives in Fairbanks.

Adrienne Titus helped organize a protest held outside the meeting. (Photo by Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

“Of course, there’s only one meeting, and it’d be in the metropolis of Anchorage,” Titus said, adding that many people from Native communities couldn’t make it to the meeting.

That’s part of why Titus, who is with the activist group Native Movement, helped organize the protest that was held outside.

Jim Kendall, who’s in charge of the BOEM’s Alaska branch, said there were good reasons behind the decision to have one meeting in Anchorage.

“We needed to keep on schedule, we don’t have unlimited resources and we are taking a very national approach to this national program,” Kendall said.

Kendall said the meeting was held in Anchorage because it’s centrally located, rather than Juneau, where it was initially proposed — public meetings in other states about the offshore drilling draft proposal were held in state capitals.

Kendall added that this isn’t the end of the process. When Interior releases the next stage of its proposal, Alaskans can weigh in again. And at that stage, Kendall said it’s likely meetings will be held in communities near where offshore drilling is proposed.

This particular exercise in American democracy will end at the end of 2019, when the Interior department is expected to make a final decision on its offshore drilling plan. That means the first offshore oil lease sale in Alaska’s Arctic could happen as soon as next year.

Elizabeth Harball is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk, covering Alaska’s oil and gas industry and environmental policy. She is a contributor to the Energy Desk’s Midnight Oil podcast series. Before moving to Alaska in 2016, Harball worked at E&E News in Washington, D.C., where she covered federal and state climate change policy. Originally from Kalispell, Montana, Harball is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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