ANCHORAGE, Alaska (CN) – Protesters voiced their concerns over the Trump administration’s draft offshore oil and gas lease plans at a public meeting in Alaska.
Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced the plan last month to open up 95 percent of all offshore areas for consideration in federal waters off U.S. coasts. According to the Interior Department, an estimated 3 billion barrels of oil lay beneath the coastal waters of the United States, plus 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Every five years the department, through the oversight of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, presents an updated proposal for sites to be included in lease sales.
Public hearings are being conducted in cities across the country as part of the draft process that agency representatives say will help advise decision makers on whether or not certain lease areas should be included.
The Alaska hearings, held in Anchorage and Fairbanks on Wednesday, resembled a science fair.
The Department of the Interior hosted various stations for members of the public to view videos and maps and to talk to agency officials and scientists before entering their comments into computers or dropping handwritten opinions into boxes.
The draft proposes 19 lease sales in Alaska, including three sales in the Chukchi Sea, three sales in the Beaufort Sea, two sales in Cook Inlet, and one sale each in 11 other program areas. The bureau recently increased its oil estimate for the Beaufort Sea by 700 million barrels to a total of 8.9 billion barrels, while the Chukchi Sea is estimated to contain 15.4 billion barrels.
About 20 peaceful protesters, brought together by a coalition called Defend the Sacred: Protect the Arctic, held a lighted sign spelling out “Protect the Arctic.” They spoke, sang and danced in front of the Dena’ina Convention Center in downtown Anchorage. They then moved inside, formed a circle in the center of the room, and one by one read off the comments they planned to formally submit, or those given to them from coastal community residents who could not attend.
“These are the voices that can’t be here and we will speak for them loud and clear,” the group chanted after each comment. This chant echoed the most repeated statement from attendees – the need for more public hearings throughout the state, particularly in the coastal communities that will be directly impacted by the lease sales.
Defend the Sacred is a coalition of groups and organizations formed to defend Alaska from national and international corporate and government interests that seek to harmfully develop public lands, deregulate protected areas, and threaten sacred places, according to the group’s Facebook page.
“These threats jeopardize the health of all people, waters, and land,” the page states. “We have a moral and ecological urgency to curb and mitigate climate change.”
George Pletnikoff Jr., one speaker within the group Wednesday, said he grew up on St. Paul Island, one of the Pribilof Chain of islands located in the Bering Sea. While many in his family are still there, he now lives in Anchorage and felt he needed to come speak for those on the islands who couldn’t attend due to travel difficulties or a lack of access to computers or knowledge of how to submit online comments.
“As somebody whose family and people depend on marine wildlife we have so richly in our waters, I am deeply opposed to drilling in any waters around us,” Pletnikoff said as he read his handwritten comment to those in attendance.
“Our communities’ livelihood strongly depends on fisheries that are already declining and will – not maybe – will be poisoned. Our halibut, northern fur seal, [and] sea lion all face endangerment and will face a shorter timeline to extinction with drilling. Nobody who exploits the riches this drilling brings will face the danger this will bring. Don’t make decisions for us when nothing is in our interest. This is killing us,” he said.
“This hearing is one of many held throughout the country,” local bureau public affairs officer, John Callahan, said. He explained that agency officials based in Washington, D.C., planned the locations, number and style of hearings to be held. Local ocean energy management staff assisted in answering questions on Alaska-related waters.
Alaska’s current congressional delegation, made up of Republican U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Representative Don Young, also object to most of the proposal. They submitted a letter on Jan. 26 to Zinke asking for all but three geographical areas under consideration to be dropped from the Draft Proposed Program for Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing for 2019-2024. They supported lease sales in Chukchi, Beaufort and Cook Inlet.
“We believe the strongest near-term offshore program in Alaska is one that focuses on the Chukchi, Beaufort, and Cook Inlet. Such a program will maximize agency resources and reflect the areas with the broadest support for development among Alaskans. Accordingly, we ask that you remove potential sales in the Hope Basin, Norton Basin, St. Matthew-Hall, Navarin Basin, Aleutian Basin, Bowers Basin, Aleutian Arc, St. George Basin, Shumagin, Kodiak, and Gulf of Alaska from the DPP,” the delegation wrote.
They also pushed for more input from local communities. “At the same time, given the diversity of stakeholders in this region, we urge you to commit your Department to meaningful consultation with local communities,” the letter states.
The oil and gas leasing program falls under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act. The 1953 law requires a multi-step process that includes opportunities for public input.
The first step in the development process, a Request for Information (RFI), was published in the Federal Register on July 3, 2017, with a 45-day comment period that closed on August 17, 2017. The first of three proposals for 2019–2024, the Draft Proposed Program, was released on January 4, 2018.
Comments on the proposal will be accepted on the agency’s website and by mail until March 9.