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Our environment should speak louder than lobbyists

Posted: January 4, 2012 - 1:04am

On Dec. 16, 2011 the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) gave Shell Oil conditional approval of their Chukchi Sea exploratory drilling plan. The agency directed Shell to shorten the proposed drilling season by 38 days to ensure that, if an accident occurs, they can cap a well blowout and clean up a spill before the sea ice returns. Alaska’s congressional delegation immediately blasted BOEM for being short-sighted. But are they really defending the merits of Shell’s plan or are putting their trust in the oil lobbyist talking points?

Sen. Mark Begich called BOEM’s decision a “last-minute monkey wrench into Arctic development,” and added, “Alaska has done off-shore exploration before, we’ve done it safely, and the technology is better now than it has ever been.” His statement implies BOEM should have rubber stamped Shell’s plan as if it had been rigorously analyzed and tested.

But Shell’s undersea well capping and containment system is still under design and their oil spill response plan requires approval by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. Even more to the point, Shell can’t possibly ensure that a spill won’t occur. And if one does, they can’t guarantee they’ll be able to contain it and prevent widespread environmental damage to the Arctic sea and coastal environments.

It’s the lack of such guarantees on environmental issues where our delegation’s position is inconsistent. Begich put that on display just one day earlier at a Senate hearing where he opposed the commercial production of genetically engineered (GE) salmon. “Looking at the available scientific information” he said, “it is clear that there is no guarantee that these GE fish won’t ever escape into the wild” and cause harm to our wild salmon and aquatic ecosystems.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young also oppose commercial farming of these fish. So shouldn’t they, and Begich, be insisting on similar assurances against damage to our Arctic waters, especially considering that last August a Shell oil spill off the coast of Scotland turned into the worst in Great Britain in a decade. And, just last week, the industry added two new blemishes to their record. A Russian oil rig sank in Arctic waters and a Shell subsidiary spilled 1.6 million gallons of oil off the Nigerian coast.

So why are Begich, Murkowski and Young so willing to trust that Shell can safely operate in the Arctic Ocean? It could have a lot to do with lobbying pressure. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, between 2000 and 2006 Shell spent less than $100,000 per year for paid lobbyists on Capitol Hill. But that increased dramatically after the Bush administration opened up 70 million acres under Arctic waters to offshore oil and gas development. For each of the past three years Shell has spent more than $10 million to influence government decisions. That puts them among the top 20 corporations lobbying in Congress.

If you believe Shell Alaska Vice President Pete Slaiby, there is solid science behind this effort. In a Senate hearing last July he told Begich and others that, “Shell would not be working in the Arctic had we believed there was something, an event we could not control.”

That hubristic pronouncement echoes the words of Tony Hayward shortly after BP’s Deepwater Horizon drill rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Speaking as the corporation’s chief executive officer he old reporters that BP was mounting “the biggest response by anyone in the industry ever, and we’re able to do it because we planned for it.” We all know how that story turned out.

The Deepwater Horizon investigators believe there was a systemic failure at BP to place safety ahead of profit. Is Shell any different? In their published “General Business Principles” they list protecting shareholder interests first among its five corporate responsibilities. Down at the bottom is being “responsible corporate members of society, to comply with applicable laws and regulations” and, last of all, “to give proper regard to health, safety, security and the environment.”

When it comes to our environment we need a delegation that holds these values in reverse. It’s their job to lead us in building a healthy society and that can’t happen if they place their trust in paid lobbyists.

• Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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