Barbeque promotes protection for Alaska's Outer Continental Shelf

I’ve just returned from a lunch of freshly-grilled wild salmon. That’s not unusual in Alaska.

What was different about this meal was the fact that it took place in downtown Anchorage, and I was joined by about 50 other people, including a woman dressed as a polar bear.

The sign in front of the BBQ grill read “Grill, Baby, Grill” — a play on words reflecting our position against those who would like to “drill, baby, drill” for oil and gas in Alaska’s Outer Continental Shelf (OCS). The purpose of our lunch was to celebrate Alaska’s oceans and raise awareness about the importance of keeping these waters healthy and free from oil and gas development. Our group included environmentalists, Alaska Natives, fishermen, and others concerned about the impacts of possible development in Alaska’s OCS.

Our salmon BBQ was held during a break between sessions of an all-day public hearing organized by the U.S. Department of Interior. Secretary Salazar was here to listen and gather information to help inform his decisions about OCS energy development. Just before Obama took office the Bush administration had proposed a new national leasing program in OCS waters, but Salazar says he wants more public comment before taking any action. He’s already had hearings in Louisiana and New Jersey. Tomorrow he’ll be in San Francisco.

In Alaska, The Wilderness Society is most concerned about how the OCS plan will affect the ocean ecosystems and coastal communities of the Arctic Ocean and Bristol Bay. Already stressed by the impacts of climate change, any further stress created by offshore oil and gas activities could cause species extinctions, with direct impacts to the native communities that depend on wildlife resources for cultural and nutritional subsistence. Oil spills are another concern, especially in the Arctic where no known technology exists for cleaning up oil spills in broken ice conditions. In Bristol Bay, the fisheries resources are worth more than $2 billion a year and provide jobs for thousands of fisherman, and workers in related jobs. Any short-term benefit of oil and gas development, when measured against the risks, is not worth it — at least not until we better understand the full scope of environmental, social, and economic impacts, and what’s at stake.

That’s why The Wilderness Society is calling for a time-out on any OCS leasing in Alaska. And, it is a position shared by our friends at the “grill, baby, grill” — many who spoke directly to Secretary Salazar today.

Among the more eloquent speakers was Mayor Edward Itta from the North Slope Borough and a respected member of the native whaling community of Barrow that would be directly impacted by any offshore development. He explained that although his community has been supportive of other development in the past, they oppose offshore development. Mayor Itta pointed to the “extreme risk” and the need to adopt “standards of higher caution” for operating in broken ice conditions.

Another compelling speaker was a commercial fisherman from Homer who recounted his personal experience with the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which decimated the herring fishery. His testimony followed that of several individuals who support offshore drilling and used the standard pro-development rhetoric claiming that with “responsible development” and “new technology” oil development and healthy fisheries can coexist. The fisherman refuted this, saying it’s been 20 years since the Exxon Valdez accident and he has yet to be able to fish for herring. He’s seen what can happen and he no longer trusts oil companies. His bottom line: oil development and healthy fisheries simply are not compatible.

By the time I left the hearing for the lunch break, only a dozen or so people had been given the chance to speak. This afternoon, there will be many more people speaking, on both sides of the issues. Salazar won’t hear the afternoon comments because he’s headed to San Francisco for the last meeting on his OCS tour. But, in his closing remarks he said he has heard both sides of the issue and understands each side’s passion and concerns. I want to believe that he will give thoughtful consideration to this issue and make the right choice.

After all, a wild salmon BBQ in Alaska is not so unusual. Not today. Not even on a chilly, overcast day in downtown Anchorage. But, it could be if Alaska’s healthy ocean ecosystems are destroyed by the very real threat of offshore oil and gas development.

Sign announcing event. Photo by Anne Gore.
Woman in polar bear costume. Photo by Anne Gore.
Mayor Itta speaking at OCS Hearing. Photo by Anne Gore.

Wild salmon plate. Photo by Anne Gore.