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Tribes threatened in oil-spill scenario leery of drilling

Alex DeMarban

The Bureau of Ocean Energy hasn't done enough to consult with tribes about a proposed five-year plan on offshore oil and gas lease sales that includes the Beaufort and Chuckchi seas, Alaska Natives charged at a recent meeting.

A spill could devastate villages across the state and those villages deserve government-to-government meetings, they said.

There's no way to remove a large oil spill from under the frozen sea ice, a scenario that could pollute the food Natives gather to supplement meager incomes, they argued. Increased shipping could also disrupt migration patterns, driving away seals, whales and walrus.

Arctic coastal communities wouldn't be the only ones harmed, said Enoch Schiedt, natural resource coordinator for Maniilaq Association in Kotzebue.

"You're not only going to impact the North Slope, you're going to impact thousands and thousands of miles," he said.

Seals he's satellite-tagged have traveled vast distances in short periods, and inland communities rely on fish that live partly in the ocean, he said.

Schiedt and others made their demands at a hearing on Wednesday in Anchorage dominated by environmentalists and Natives.

The hearing, called by the agency on a proposed 2012-2017 leasing plan for the Beaufort, Chukchi and Cook Inlet, was billed as a 'supplemental' meeting designed to accommodate those who weren't called to speak at the last regularly scheduled meeting on Feb. 25.

That meeting drew an unexpectedly largely crowd. Pro-development forces, who had signed up first, did most of the speaking then.

At that meeting, the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., the North Slope's for-profit Native corporation, said it supported offshore exploration, with strong environmental protections.

Oil development has paid for health clinics, water and sewer systems, and other modern services throughout the region, said Theresa Imm, vice president of resource development.

With the Trans-Alaska Pipeline moving oil at one-third of its capacity, it will go dry sooner than people think, hurting jobs and further reducing revenues for North Slope communities. It needs to be refilled, she said.

"We are hearing from our communities they need jobs," said Imm. "The delay with permits of the existing leases is having a negative impact on jobs in our region. Our shareholders have worked as marine mammal observers and communication operators for the last couple of years. However the current delay has extinguished those few jobs."

ASRC is cautious, she said.

"We know that to consider a spill and its remedies is to ponder the unthinkable," she said. "That is why we looked for and found what we consider to be a spill prevention system proposed by today's explorers that eases and works to mitigate risk."

As part of the bureau's public scoping process, agency officials held hearings and consulted with tribes in five Arctic communities last month, including Kotzebue and Barrow, two regional transportation hubs for surrounding villages.

Bureau officials also attempted to fly into the villages of Point Hope and Point Lay, but were weathered out, Jeffery Loman, the agency's deputy regional director, explained at the meeting.

Consultations in five rural communities isn't enough, speakers charged. There are about 20 rural communities in the Barrow and Kotzebue regions, and the hub city of Nome could also be impacted by a spill or increased shipping.

David Harrison, head of Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, said the agency should hold government-to-government consultations with all 229 Alaska tribes, on their own turf.

The calls for more tribal involvement come in the wake of an increased emphasis on tribal consultation driven by President Obama. He's ordered agencies to follow a 2000 executive order calling for consultation on policies that directly or substantially affect tribes.

Meeting with every tribe in every village isn't possible given limited timelines, Loman said.

"It would take an awfully lot of people and a tremendously long amount of time," he replied.

The agency has taken extra steps to make sure every voice is heard and has exceeded its obligations under federal law, he said.

That wasn't enough for Art Lake, who had flown to Anchorage from the coastal village of Kwigillingok in Southwest Alaska, after stormy weather prevented him from flying in for the first meeting.

"Distance doesn't matter. Time doesn't matter. You still have an obligation" for government-to-government consultations, said Lake.

This story is posted with permission from Alaska Newspapers Inc., which publishes six weekly community newspapers, a statewide shopper, a statewide magazine and slate of special publications that supplement its products year-round.