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Vol. 12, No. 9 Week of March 04, 2007
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

Natives sue to halt MMS sale

North Slope Borough, whalers ask court to stop April 18 Beaufort Sea lease sale

Kay Cashman

Petroleum News

The North Slope Borough and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission filed a lawsuit Feb. 26 to halt a federal Beaufort Sea oil and gas lease sale scheduled for April 18. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Anchorage, questions the “adequacy of scientific data and some of the economic assumptions” used to justify lease sale 202 by the U.S. Minerals Management Service, the agency that handles offshore leasing for the Interior Department.

“I really don’t want to go to court over this,” said borough Mayor Edward Itta, “but there are way too many unanswered questions about the impacts of offshore activity on the bowhead whale migration and on our subsistence activities. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I just let this lease sale go.”

Itta recently met with MMS officials and with Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne in Washington, D.C., in hopes of avoiding legal action.

He said North Slope whalers and elders are increasingly worried about the stepped-up pace of exploration in recent years.

“People feel like it’s just too much, too soon, too fast,” Itta said. “We’re seeing it onshore with leasing in sensitive areas of NPR-A, and we’re seeing it offshore, which is even more sensitive because of the whale migration. MMS’s own numbers indicate as much as a 29 percent chance of a large spill from development related to the current five-year plan, and if they used more accurate numbers, it could be considerably higher. I’m kind of surprised that the government is willing to put our way of life at such high risk.”

The borough has argued that the 2003 Environmental Impact Statement justifying lease sales in the five-year plan is fundamentally flawed. It said industry has failed to demonstrate any proven method of oil spill cleanup in broken ice conditions and that the amount of estimated exploration activity following the sale is likely understated because the EIS uses outdated oil price estimates.

Ice can be an advantage

Ron Morris, president and general manager of Alaska Clean Seas, told Petroleum News Feb. 27 that ice can often work as a natural boom and prevent crude from spreading as quickly as it might in open water.

“We have methods in our tactics manual that are recognized methods for cleaning up oil in broken ice,” Morris said. “It’s not your typical clean-up situation — putting out booms and skimming it off the surface — because you have to contend with ice, but .... you take opportunities to find oil in pockets where it has been trapped by the ice. Your encounter rate is going to be lower than if you have open water, but depending on the quantity of oil ice can actually help you corral the oil; it works as a sort of a boom. ... Ice can actually impede the spread of the oil. ... You take advantage of the fact you have broken ice — leads — that are going to trap the oil.”

He said there are actually several techniques that can be used in broken ice. (One is) “in-situ burning. Once you go through the checklist with the regulatory agencies and get approval, in-situ burning can be very effective.”

ACS is the non-profit spill response cooperative for northern Alaska, onshore and offshore.

Morris said ACS is currently participating in a joint industry project through Sintef (The Foundation for Scientific and Industrial Research at the Norwegian Institute of Technology) “in a research and development effort in Norway looking at removing oil in Arctic ice conditions. This three-year program will culminate with actual oil in water testing off the coast of Norway,” something that is not allowed in U.S. waters. (See related article on page 7 outlining a recent Arctic spill test by MMS.)

Gary Strasburg, MMS’ media team lead in Washington, D.C., told Petroleum News Feb. 27 that the agency had “no statement at this time” about the lawsuit.

Lease sale 202 is the last of three sales in MMS’ current five-year offshore plan, which ends in June 2007. The July 2007-June 2012 five-year plan for offshore Alaska includes two sales for the Beaufort and three for the Chukchi Sea.

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