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Mayor Itta: Dwindling oil opportunities force rethinking of anti-development stance

February 16th, 2011 | Alex DeMarban Print this article   Email this article  

North Slope Borough Mayor Ed Itta, labeled by Parade Magazine as possibly one of the country's most powerful mayors, was recently honored by the borough assembly at the Kivgiq dance festival for his years of service. Part of the praise heaped on him credited the balance he's struck with Big Oil's plans for offshore oil exploration with the need to protect the region's all-important wildlife, such as the bowhead whales that people have eaten for eons. In an interview with the Sounder last week, Itta addresses that balance as well as shifting perspectives on off-shore oil exploration in light of sagging opportunities for new development on land.

AS: After Shell made its decision to cancel drilling (in the Arctic Ocean this year), I've been trying to understand what's the economic fallout or other consequences for the North Slope borough and companies and people?

... When Pete Slaiby, vice president for Alaska operations of Shell, called me with the notice impending the next day, I have to tell you the truth, I was disappointed.

It's something I felt inside, and it took me a while to say, 'Why am I feeling the way I'm feeling?' And it came to me as I talked to some of my staff. That I couldn't quite figure out why I was disappointed. You'd think it would give us a bit of breathing room. But I know what it was.

The momentum, the gains that I feel that we have made in the way of putting in language in the permits to stop operations why the whale migration is going on and for the villages to get their quota, the science agreement we've reached, the agreements by Shell to have no discharge into our water other than the initial 30 feet, I think, the capping system they agreed to put on, and the relief well. All of these weren't in place.

We have made so much progress not only with Shell, but now with agencies too on recognizing the balance we're trying to strike to protect our environment and waters and marine mammals.

From an economic perspective, you know, whatever happens out there, we're looking at 10 years down the road. But it is really a concern of ours, especially for me as mayor. One of my key responsibilities is to ensure as best as I can, the economic well-being of our region, and it's dependent on oil and gas. We all know, or certainly a lot of people know, that through-put through the pipeline is going down, down, down. And that worries me.

You see all our young ones, our kids, my kids have families now, my grandkids, what are they going to have? So in this sense, I thought enough protections had been put in so we could do one or two wells on the Beaufort this coming year, and understanding that it's only exploration.

I thought that was manageable, and that's a long way from 2007 when there were unlimited wells, two drilling rigs and an armada of support vessels and ice breakers and fuel tanks and helicopters and all kinds of support, to where we are today.

So we have to look at the reality of the situation up here.

NPRA was just downgraded from a nearly 10 billion (barrel) estimate to less a billion in recoverable oil.

CD-5, the gateway to expansion of Alpine, to put more oil in the pipeline, the permit has been stopped.

Ongoing issues on the 1002 area in ANWR to make that permanently wilderness.

And the lawsuits regarding offshore, when you put all those issues together, it feels like we're being squeezed to no development.

Especially also with the Endangered Species Act and its ramifications of critical habitat -- 188,000 square miles of our land and water categorized as critical habitat.

And what does that mean for our way of life? Even we don't know. But we do know it will probably restrict some development.

So economically, we hope for more oil, let me put it that way, that can be developed responsibly with world class protections that we need up here. And beyond that, I worry 10, 15, 20 years from now. If there's no more oil, what are we going to do? That's a very real question my people are struggling with now.

I read one fine gentleman's comments in the Sounder, from Wainwright, about a month ago, where he was pondering all of this. We're in a hard place. And while we want to protect and keep everything out from offshore, is that real? What's going to keep the schools open, the power plants running, the fuel for the generators, the health services, the heat for our homes, and the electricity?

Ninety-five-plus percent of our revenue comes from infrastructure related to oil that we're able to tax. So I know I'm not the only one worrying about it now. There are summits being put together to try and address that issue, looking at the economic considerations and trying to come together as a people and I commend ASRC for taking a lead on that portion.

I still stand by my, relative to OCS (outer-continental shelf), my eight policy points, such as world-class oil spill protections, air monitoring, Coast Guard presence, Arctic pilots, the revenue sharing, the pipeline if there's going to be anything coming out of the ocean, Coastal Zone, all these are tied into this whole issue.

It's complex, but there's got to be a way forward. I've always opposed off-shore. I came in, I campaigned against it.

But from 5 years ago to today, from when I campaigned against offshore -- and at that time my position was not only, 'No, but Hell no, over my dead body' -- but my job as mayor has been a work in progress, literally.

I've learned my responsibilities and that is largely to maintain and do what I can to maintain our economic well-being here. We certainly can't go backwards. And what's going to replace it? That's the question. The proverbial rock and a hard place, or the cart before the horse. It's on us.

So you're perspective has changed from 'Hell no' to what today?

To what I've always said. I oppose offshore and I want this real clear, that I've opposed offshore because I've felt the protections, the mitigation measures, the acknowledgement for our way of life, the protections needed to do that, we're lacking.

In fact by the prior MMS, they were woefully lacking, and I've always opposed offshore for that reason, that there weren't enough protections in place.

And the reports the General Accounting Office did ... I think validated my positions in that they said the Alaska office virtually ignored science, they didn't do their job, that industry and the regulators were just too close.

And that's why I was so pleased and hopeful when Secretary Salazar, his first words in Alaska, down in Anchorage, were that he was trying to strike a balance, and I said, 'Hmm,' that kind of sounded like what I'd been talking about.

Since then I've gotten to know him personally and we're real fortunate that he understands that we are dependent on oil and gas and you can't go shutting everything down, and yet he understands too that we need some balance, some control and to elevate standards.

So do you share his view and have you gone from 'Hell no,' to 'Well, if we can do it the right way ... ?'

To, 'We're making progress.'

It can be done if we keep sitting at the table, get our points across and put in the mitigation measures. Certainly for exploration, I want that real clear. That's a far cry from development and production.

That's another whole argument. Because one thing we realized about offshore oil and gas ... it's certainly not a slam dunk. Look what happened to NPR-A, from 10 billion to less than a billion. The exploration portion is going to validate that and then I'll be out of office then whatever happens.

But the lessons we have learned, it's been all new. It's never happened on this scale up here before. And then there's the issue of climate change, and fisheries, and tourism and marine transportation on top of everything else. So the challenges are certainly not lacking.

What are two key protections that still need to happen on exploration to make you feel even better?

There's still a number. The Clean Air issues. I know that's what stopped Shell largely. There's certainly a lot more studies that need to get done, scientifically, so we can make some rational decisions. And the very basic issues especially on the Chukchi. (Such as) where does the current or where does the food chain go? And how many natchiqs, how many seals (are out there)?

Do you think perspectives are also shifting among the general population in the same way you've experienced?

I'd say so. As the discussion is maturing, as the realization is hitting, it's a very real issue that people are talking about now.

I've seen certain families move from overall, 'No,' and 'Hell no,' like me, to 'Hmm? Okay, if there's no oil, what are we going to do?'

So it moves it another step, I think. And it's shades of 30, 40 years ago when Prudhoe Bay was first starting. All the fear. Are wildlife going to go away? Our caribou will go away. Our fish will be devastated. But that's onshore.

Offshore is another whole issue, and we don't even know the right questions to ask, because it is so new. What I do know is the uncertainties, the anxiety, is not good for us as a people. It creates more stress, and there's a lot of stress and strain going on around here.


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