The U.S. Minerals Management Service announced June 3 that it has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Aleutians East Borough to ensure that local interests are considered during the evaluation of the North Aleutian basin oil and gas lease sale proposed for 2011.
The borough will serve as a cooperating agency in the MMS preparation of an environmental impact statement for the lease sale. The memorandum of understanding “provides a framework for coordination, communication, collaboration and the exchange of ideas between MMS and the borough,” MMS said.
“MMS is pleased to have the borough as a partner in this planning process,” said MMS Alaska Regional Director John Goll. “Borough leaders and staff bring a wealth of knowledge about Bristol Bay, its people, their concerns and their economies, which will help us evaluate the proposal for lease sale 214.”
“It’s very important that the borough is at the table throughout this planning process,” said Aleutians East Borough Mayor Stanley Mack. “The borough has consistently supported leasing in the North Aleutian basin, provided maximum protection is given to fishery and subsistence resources. Ensuring that offshore exploration and development is conducted in an environmentally safe manner is also crucial. We’re very pleased to have come together to sign the memorandum of agreement and are going forward with the process.
Call for informationOn April 13 MMS issued a call for information and a notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement for the North Aleutians sale. The proposed sale area lies offshore the northwest side of the Alaska Peninsula, west of Port Moller. The Aleutian East Borough encompasses the easternmost of the Aleutian Islands and the western end of the Alaska Peninsula, an area that includes the land that lies immediately adjacent to the proposed offshore sale tracts.
Geologists view the sale area as especially prospective for natural gas, although there is also a possibility of discovering oil. Shell is known to have an interest in exploring the region and has in the past suggested the possibility of an offshore pipeline feeding gas to an LNG facility on the southern side of the Alaska Peninsula, were gas to be discovered north of the peninsula.
But the sale area overlaps several major fisheries, all of which have operated in the southeastern Bering Sea for many years. The prospect of offshore co-existence with the oil and gas industry has raised concerns in the fishing industry. Those concerns include potential impacts on fish and crustacean habitats and the potential for a disastrous oil spill.
On the other hand, some sectors of the fishing industry have commented on the track record of successful co-existence of fishing with oil activities in regions such as Alaska’s Cook Inlet, the Gulf of Mexico, eastern Canada and Norway.
Local communitiesCommunities in the area, including those in the East Aleutian Borough, are concerned to maintain their ability to hunt for subsistence food resources including fish.
“We are all concerned about an oil spill,” Justine Gunderson, a resident of the village of Nelson Lagoon and a member of the Aleutian East Borough Assembly, told the North Aleutian Basin Energy-Fisheries Workshop in March. “Not only would that devastate the commercial fishery, it would devastate our subsistence lifestyle.”
But the communities also see the possibility of the oil and gas industry bringing jobs and prosperity to a region that has seen something of an economic decline in recent years. People want to stay in the villages and ensure a future for their children Gunderson said.
“People don’t want to leave. People want to develop,” Gunderson said. “… We do support this development. … There is always a risk, but you can’t stand still.”
And Mack told the forum that he felt encouraged by what he had seen on a recent trip to Norway, where local people had insisted that oil companies meet the needs of the locals as part of the stipulations for oil and gas development. The communities got what they wanted, Mack said.
“That’s where I’m coming from today,” he said. “… We’re trying to train our youngsters … so that they can take part in what happens. … We’re pro-development but we’re always protective of our culture, our lifestyle. … We’ll protect them at all costs.”