ANCHORAGE - Interior Secretary Ken Salazar heard a wide range of opinions Tuesday during a hearing on whether the government should allow oil and gas drilling in federal waters off Alaska.
"I understand the passion that I feel in this room today," Salazar told a standing-room only crowd at the Dena'ina Convention Center. "I hear what you are telling us about this issue."
Salazar said the challenge will be coming up with a broad energy portfolio for the nation that not only addresses the need for more domestic oil and gas production, but also advances renewable energy resources such as hybrid cars.
Salazar's visit to Alaska was the third of four regional meetings he has held this month to gather information and comment on plans to lease federal waters to oil and gas companies.
The federal government is taking comment on its five-year oil and gas leasing program until Sept. 21. The plan includes 26 planning areas for the Outer Continental Shelf. Contained in the plan are newly identified areas for drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska.
Salazar opened the daylong hearing with his prescription for a new national energy plan. He quickly got down to what many Alaskans in this energy-producing state wanted to hear - the need for America to produce more of its own oil and natural gas.
"Development will be part of our equation," Salazar told the crowd, many of whom wore "OCS Yes!" buttons. "Development has to be part of a broad energy portfolio."
Gov. Sarah Palin emphasized Alaska's rich resources while also underscoring the need for "wise and responsible" development of conventional fuels when testifying.
Palin warned against the country's dependence on foreign oil coming from "dangerous regimes." With production falling on the North Slope, the amount of oil carried in the trans-Alaska pipeline could fall below carrying capacity in the next decade, the governor said.
"Alaska has decades of safely developing our oil and gas," Palin said. "There are solutions here in Alaska to America's energy challenges."
Sens. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Mark Begich, D-Alaska, sent Salazar a similar message: Alaska knows how to drill for oil and gas in an environmentally responsible way.
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said Alaska will be left out if it doesn't act now, especially with China and Russia already staking claims to the North Pole.
"My interest in this is jobs," Young said.
Industry and labor representatives said drilling needs to get started now to help end the nation's dependence on foreign oil, but commercial fishermen cautioned Salazar about the potential for an oil spill disaster. Some Alaska Natives said offshore drilling threatens their existence.
"You need water to live. If you contaminate the ocean and the water, how are we going to live?" Marilyn Savage of Fort Yukon asked Salazar. "We don't want to die."
But even in the Native community, there was a divergence of opinion.
Richard Glenn of Barrow, vice president of the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., told Salazar the issue "is testing the fiber of each of our communities." But, he said, the North Slope economy is dependent on oil development. It is what has built the region's schools, firehouses and health clinics, he said.
"We believe drilling exploration ... can be done in a way that is safe," he said.
Alan Parks, a commercial fisherman from Homer, told Salazar that offshore drilling "needs to be taken off the table." He said in 1989 he was preparing to go herring fishing when the Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in Prince William Sound. He thought the oil would be cleaned up and things quickly would return to normal.
"I haven't been herring fishing in Prince William Sound since then," Parks said.
Pat Fallon, a member of a local labor union, said drilling for oil and gas can be done in a safe and responsible way.
"The U.S. must produce most of the energy it consumes," he said.
Salazar was asked later how he would handle such divergent views.
"Everything is on the table," he said. "Whatever we do there will be people who are dissatisfied."
Salazar visited the fishing community of Dillingham on Monday. His next stop is San Francisco. He already visited New Orleans and Atlantic City, N.J.
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