While the Lion Sleeps

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You’ve got to love Alaskan politics. Their direction changes as quickly as the weather. Ted Stevens has been acquitted of the corruption/ bribery charges filed against him, and once more the faithful, who had been faithless in the first dog eat dog frenzy of character assassination, are sounding the troops to re-stage the elections. It shouldn’t surprise anyone who has studied political history that Senator Stevens beat the rap. He began his career as Attorney General under President Eisenhower. All he had to do was sit it out with his mouth shut and stage an appeal based on illegal prosecution procedures. The procedures used had been the same tactics for acquiring every one of the other corruption conviction; or, if the truth be told, for convictions in general for that matter. The difference was Ted Stevens knew the law and knew exactly what steps the prosecution took that lay outside the legal boundaries. His saga turned the tables so that instead of becoming an illustration in corrupt government practices, it became a clear picture of how blithely the courts have ignored the implements of legal rights under the assumption that nobody knows enough about the law to adequately defend themselves against prosecution. The kangaroos are jumping and hopefully, they’ll haul out the Constitution and take another look at it.

Sarah Palin, go-go girl governor and favorite pin-up has lost much of her favoritism since her bid for Vice-Presidency made Alaskans look they’d just walked out of a ma and pa Kettles special. It didn’t help her image when scandals arose over her choices of cabinet positions and accusations flew over selections that had histories of spouse abuse, violent episodes and racial slurs. One has to wonder how she ever made it to governor in the first place. The answer is simple. Sarah stood up to Big Oil. Or, more accurately, she went to the table to bargain for better oil contracts. In a state where oil is the number one industry, this says a lot. For environmentalists, this says very little.

Sarah’s ambiguity against Big Oil did not exclude an interest in the Arctic Shelf development or in the opening of ANWR. With the swords of the Bush administration leading the way, lease sales were quickly appropriated last year for development in the Bering, Beaufort or Chukchi Sea , much to the dismay of the fishing industry, natural wildlife organizations and ecologists. On April 17th, after a week of deliberations, A federal appeals court ruled that the Bush administration didn’t adequately study the environmental impact of expanding oil and gas drilling off the Alaska coast, much to the dismay of many legislators and lobbyists.

Halting leasing in the Beaufort, Bering and Chukchi seas will “cause a further delay in the development of the oil and gas resources that America still requires to fuel its economy,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“Alaska’s outer continental shelf is America’s energy storehouse and it needs to be developed with sensitivity to climate change and marine life,” Murkowski said, “but I am troubled that the groups behind this litigation are engaging in the too-familiar tactic of suing on every possible issue, no matter the legal merits.”

The appeals court did not rule out the possibility of off shore oil development, but instead ordered the Interior Department, now run by President Barack Obama’s appointee Ken Salazar, to analyze the areas to determine environmental risks and potential damage before moving ahead. The effect likely will be to postpone, possibly by years, oil and gas exploration in federal waters off Alaska’s northern coast.

This means the conservatives of Alaska’s fragile ego-system have been given a reprieve, but not necessarily complete absolution from industrialized development. If the oil companies are being held at bay, it doesn’t mean their claws have been removed. They still play the largest role in energy production, consequently they still wield a great deal of power in our economic stability. They were hasty to warn Alaskans that increased oil production would yield three times the number of jobs as any other energy alternative.

What they weren’t so hasty to state was that Alaska’s fisheries had every chance of losing their jobs with the opening of the federal waters to oil production, and would have to depend on a shrinking global food supply for sustenance. Nor did they find it necessary to add that if a lease sale cleared the way for them to drill today, it would still be at least ten years before they could begin development. The most disturbing of their silences is the controversial non-development of the North Slope Reserves, an untapped resource that has been in the hands of lease holders for twenty years.

The story around the North Slope is a little amazing, even for those who have sharpened the spin doctrine tools to the finest. In 1998-1999, Principal slope operators ARCO Alaska Inc. and BP Exploration Alaska Inc. at the onset of the drilling season had applied for as many as 10 exploratory wells in the theater that, apart from the deepwater Gulf of Mexico, was the costliest exploration and production (E&P) province in the U.S.

While a scarcity of rigs suggested it was unlikely that all 10 wells would get spudded during the 1998-99 season, the ambitious drilling plans flew in the face of oil prices that skidded to as low as $10/bbl as the season got under way. The two principal slope operators agreed to wait. Oil prices would rise with the turn of the century, making it more feasible to develop the North Slope tracts. While they were waiting, operators continued to nibble at the edges of the forbidden ANWR Coastal Plain with small discoveries, potential new developments, and new wildcat drilling plans. Their estimates were that ANWR held as much oil in reserve as the Prudhoe Bay, and they wanted to be the first to claim these fields, too.

The turn of the century saw the steady rise in oil prices and the effect they had on the economy. Every single food item, every commodity that required transporting crept higher as the costs of delivery were transferred over to the buyer. Airline flights dwindled, vacation plans were cancelled. Was this enough stimulus to begin developing in the already secured leased areas of the North Slope. No. Although the North Slope contains billions of barrels in crude on coastal plain, operators still say it’s too expensive to develop it. Yet, they don’t feel its too expensive to develop in a treacherous sea that is covered with ice throughout most of the year and receives raging winds of over a hundred miles an hour.

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The hazards of development in the Arctic Sea are enormous. An oil spill on land, such as a break in the pipeline, has the potential to do a great deal of damage, but it can be contained. Clean ups in recent years have become very efficient, reducing the contaminated area within hours, and mopping out the oil saturation within days. However, a sea spill is a different problem. The drills will have to be strong enough to support the buffeting of the ocean and must remain free from corrosion. They will have to drop deeply enough to reach the ocean floor. If a spill occurs, it becomes trapped immediately in sea ice, which can’t be filtered. Once the sea ice melts, the oil disperses over a very wide area, affecting all marine life within the vicinity. It’s inconceivable to believe that the North Slope holdings could be any more expensive to develop than the Chukchi Sea.

Although political memories are often short, the cries of victory quickly turning to dismay with the first disagreeable encounter, there are some memories Alaskans just don’t forget. They haven’t forgotten that EXXON still has not paid for the clean up of their massive oil spill and the grievances that occurred through environmental damages. Most of the main mop up was done by local volunteers. The area where the spill occurred has not recuperated completely from its loss of marine life habitat, and the health risk to the people living in the vicinity remains high. Considering the enormous hazards of producing in sea ice, they feel the oil companies should become more accountable for their actions before being allowed more exploratory drilling. North Slope oil is there, waiting to be developed. With the current prices per barrel, it can’t fail to be profitable; not unless we really have more oil than we need.

The Alaskan Native people; the ones who would be most affected by Arctic Ocean industry, are worried about their already threatened way of life. Recent years have seen a decline in seal, walrus and whale populations. Many of the coastal villages have had to relocate as their ocean fronts corrode from flooding due to melting sea ice. At a summit that included indigenous people from as far away as Peru, they concluded that indigenous people did the least to contribute to global warming, yet were the first to suffer.

A more accurate statement would be, they are the first to suffer from the effects of mass scale pollution; the first to notice the impact of deforestation, to experience the imbalance of contaminated water, to see the changes in wild life. Industry, of which oil plays a major role, is quick to dismiss the charges of global warming; after all, earth has its cycles. Its cycles do not include extra monoxide poisons in the air and mercury in the sea.

It is this massive dishonesty of the oil companies that make it so urgent to discontinue our dependency on oil. As long as they can ignore the law, they will. As long as they can manipulate the economy and keep us believing in crisis, they will do so. As long as they can shrug off environmental hazards, they will continue to make this an ailing world. The lion will come back out of his den soon with promises to alleviate our suffering. He will insist we need more oil; perhaps raise prices further to remind of how much of it we still use. But oil isn’t our future; it’s our tyranny. The more we take accountability for our actions, the more we demand that those in higher positions become accountable, too. Oil has seeped its way into every branch of jurisdiction. It’s time for it to be held accountable. It’s time for all who have taken our lives and seen them as commodities instead of people to become accountable for their actions.