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Environmentalists no stranger to bait-and-switch over Alaska drilling

Frank Murkowski

Jeff Fair's views on the commentary from our senior Alaska senator in the Oct. 9 Alaska Dispatch, entitled “The bait-and-switch on Alaska energy,” energize me to respond to several of Mr. Fair’s observations on the congressional intent surrounding the management of National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A).

Clearly, the 23 million acres of oil, gas and coal reserves established by Congress in 1910 were intended to be just that -- a reserve for the U.S. Navy in time of need. The fact that there was little knowledge on the extent of the reserve and the absence of infrastructure to deliver product to the Navy in time of need was incidental. If Congress had intended it for a purpose other than development, it could have been placed in a Wilderness or Monument status.

I am quite familiar with the legislative effort to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). In 1995 the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives both passed an Alaska delegation bill authorizing the opening of 2 million acres, with the remaining 17 million acres to remain in wilderness and refuge status, only to have President Clinton bow to environmental pressure and veto the legislation. Consequently, we lost one of our greatest opportunities to reduce our energy independence on foreign imports. During the debate the enviornmental community was strident in its demands that exploration should occur in NPR-A, which was already designated for resource development.

So the stage is set for bait-and-switch. The environmental lobby opposes ANWR when legislation is up for a vote, urging its defeat and suggesting that our energies should be directed to NPR-A. Sixteen years later when the issue of exploration in NPR-A is proposed, they are solidly opposed to the issue they had once proposed as a trade-off for ANWR.

The Pebble mine project is another glaring example of bait-and-switch, which seems to be part of the national environmental game plan. Case in point with Pebble is that environmental groups have pressured the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to a review process and come up with a finding that the Pebble project should be rejected even before the applications are ever submitted for review. Such an action by EPA precludes the applicant from a process which was designed to protect the environment through the application of sound science, not emotional arguments. So here we have the EPA prepared to reject the applicants before they can even make their case.

The fear tactics that have been promulgated on the rural residents of the area is a blatant attempt to suggest that the rich salmon resouces of Bristol Bay will be threatened and subsistence put at risk while certain residents are free to enjoy their wilderness in-holdings.

One only has to look North to the NANA region and the operation of the Red Dog Mine, which has brought the only regular, year-round employment in this huge area. It has certainly provided residents with an opportunity to make a choice between a subsistence lifestyle or a regular job and a quality of life of their choosing.

Alaska has had a good deal of experience over the last several decades with the caribou herds that frequent the Prudhoe oil fields. They are not threatened and have prospered accordingly. The same thing can occur in the Federal management of NPR-A. No hunting or running them by snowmachines.

Finally there must be a balance between development and conservation. But too often the opposition to development occurs once a proposal for development is identified. This is what has happened in NPR-A. Oil and minerals occur where you find them, but environmental opposition is rampant wherever you want to look for it. The same is true of both NPR-A and the Pebble mine project.

I am personally satisfied that Congress did not give EPA such broad authority. So again, a bait-and-switch. Why are not the environmental groups who fought so hard for a fair and balanced permitting process not ready to defend the Congressional intent -- that the permits must be granted on sound science, not emotion, and we must be bound by the science and accordingly the decisions which are rendered. Anything short of this is a grevious affront to our democratic process.

How quick the attitude can shift when those decisions don’t fit the EPA’s agenda. Again, they want to have it both ways. Bait and switch!

Frank Murkowski was governor of Alaska from 2002 to 2006, one of its U.S. senators from 1980 to 2002, and chairman of the Senate Energy Committee from 1995 to 2001.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.