No one can deny that drilling for oil and gas in the ocean is risky, and Alaska's foul-weather waters are riskier, in some ways, than other places off our nation's shores. The evidence indicates, though, that this risk can be addressed to prevent catastrophic spills.
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar is in Alaska this week to test the public's mood toward oil and gas development in federal waters off our state's coastline. We hope he finds a cautious but open-minded public.
Alaska's experience with open-ocean work has not been extensive when compared to places such as the Gulf of Mexico or the North Sea. Those areas are challenged, respectively, by hurricanes and famously harsh North Atlantic storms, but oil work has been on balance sound and safe, and environmental impacts have been relatively minor.
That mirrors Alaska's experience with oil and gas development in Cook Inlet. The inlet platforms have been producing in that none-too-friendly stretch of water for more than 40 years.
Cook Inlet, of course, is a sheltered place compared to the Bering and Chukchi seas, where federal leasing is proceeding.
The obvious difference is in the ice, at least in the ocean regions north of the Aleutian basin. Even we who live in Alaska's Interior understand its crushing power. We've seen slabs of river ice at breakup shave islands clear of willows, and we've watched wind-driven lake ice plow massive boulders up shorelines. Such destructive forces are multiplied many times over in an open-ocean ice pack pushed by an arctic gale. Winter's extensive ice cover also will make it more difficult to detect any leaks from any wells or pipelines below.
These are challenges that must be addressed, but the experience in Cook Inlet and elsewhere in the world indicates that they can be. In fact, the job is likely to be done better here than almost anywhere elsewhere in the world.
Demand for oil and gas is not going to disappear any time soon. Our entire modern society is built on it. While there might be reason to begin changing that, such change will take many years.
In the meantime, this nation should do what it can to make sure that oil and gas is extracted in this nation, where we can keep an eye on how it's done and keep the dollars we spend on it in our own bank accounts.
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