Alaska

Despite massive Gulf oil spill, offshore oil drilling starts soon in the Arctic Ocean

If you thought BP's massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill would give the oil companies some pause about offshore drilling, you were sadly mistaken. Armed with a just-issued appellate court ruling against environmentalists and Alaskan native tribes, Shell is pushing briskly ahead with plans to launch exploratory drilling off the north coast of Alaska in matter of weeks.

Yes, just as BP's Deepwater Horizon spill is revealed to be on course to outdo the nation's worst oil spill, Alaska's Exxon Valdez, another oil company wants to open up vast swaths off the the 49th state's coast for drilling. These are the same waters that produce the nation's largest fish catch.

Recall that, as we recounted not long ago, government auditors have established that the U.S. Minerals Management Service scientists were ordered to do a shoddy job analyzing environmental risks of this new drilling campaign in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas of the Arctic Ocean.

Recall also -- and we're having trouble understanding why this isn't coming up more right about now -- that it wasn't that long ago that Minerals Management Service officials literally were having sex and snorting cocaine with the oil-company execs their agency was supposed to be regulating. In a novel, this would not be believeable. But it happened.

So now that we've covered the institutional background behind this Alaskan oil-drilling adventure, let's consider it in light of the Gulf spill.  

Federal scientists ordered to do half-baked analysis of Alaskan oil-drilling plans, audit finds

When the Obama administration not long ago went ahead with what could become a major expansion of oil drilling off Alaska's coasts, it did so with full knowledge that its scientists hadn't been able to do a proper environmental review.

That's the upshot from auditors at the Government Accountability Office, an arm of Congress. And it appears that oil companies' pleas to keep some information secret from the scientists also played a role in the half-baked look at environmental threats, a new GAO report states:

"According to regional staff, this (secrecy) practice has hindered their ability to complete sound environmental analyses."

Those analyses are required under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Although the GAO report just came out, drafts had been available at the Interior Department, which oversees the offshore oil drilling, since sometime before March 1, records show.

The report says some scientists who were sick of being told to do a lousy job on environmental analyses just quit, further complicating the task for doing a first-rate job taking stock of the risks as required under NEPA. Remember, folks, we are talking here about the Obama admnistration, which, as we noted recently, seems reminiscent of the Bush administration on some enviro matters lately. This latest finding flies in the face of President Obama's chest-pounding about how his administration would end the era of arm-twisting government scientists.

Obama's offshore-drilling OK may not be a flip-flop but it's sure Bush-like -- except the Alaska part

Did President Obama do a flip-flop when he opened up vast swaths of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico to offshore oil drilling? It depends on how far back you want to go in the President's record. In the Senate he supported efforts to limit offshore drilling. But as a presidential candidate he came around to accepting at least some offshore drilling as a way to build consensus on the energy issue.

Catharine Richert brings us this analysis for the worthwhile politifact.com website run by the St. Pete Times. Her post is worth a read.

Flip-flop or no, though, it's one of what seem like increasingly more common Obama decisions on the environment that could easily have been made by the George W. Bush administration (but probably not  by the George H.W. Bush team.) Example: On Monday the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it was going with a Bush-era interpretation of the Clean Air Act that delays a crackdown on regulation of greenhouse gases from stationary sources such as power plants. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, this will allow construction of another 50 coal-fired plants.

Other thoughts in the aftermath of Obama's drilling decision:

+ I couldn't resist retweeting David Roberts of Grist.org:

"Imagine Obama banning offshore drilling in the vague hope that environmental groups might some day support his bill."

:>)

Glaciers melting faster than originally thought, study finds

Three heavily-studied glaciers in Alaska and Washington are shrinking rapidly, according to a U.S. Geological Survey study, reports Erika Bolstad of the Anchorage Daily News. Changes in the Wolverine Glacier and Gulkana Glaciers in Alaska and South Cascade Glacier in Washington state have been monitored for more than 50 years. Each has a different elevation and climate, allowing them to act as indicators for glaciers across North America. Glacial runoff provides necessary cooling and oxygen to mountain streams, and a reduction in the amount of runoff would affect water temperature and downstream ecosystems. Less runoff also means less drinking water in some areas: Anchorage gets their drinking water from Eklutna Glacier runoff. Although Anchorage's water supply isn't threatened at this point, that of millions of South Americans could be if glacial melting rates continue to increase.

– Emily Linroth

Up to 1/3 of Western Alaskan native village housing crumbling in the cold

Wow, we'd heard conditions weren't exactly ideal in the villages that native Alaskans inhabit in the remote western and northern parts of the state. But a new report says that up to one-third of the homes in some villages are filled with mold, buckling, or otherwise potentially unsafe to live in.

Kyle Hopkins of the Anchorage Daily News provided some  context for the report: Many of the homes in question were built in the 1970s without eaves or gutters, causing rain to soak the wooden buildings. In some cases, insulation has trapped water in the walls. He quotes the report:

Widespread use of these homes has created a problem of crisis proportions for the village: they are for all practical purposes unsalvageable," the report says. "Yet to condemn them all would leave roughly one-third of the village without shelter.

Results presented in the study were based on an investigation of  just 55 homes in the Yup'ik village of Quinhagak, which requested the study. However, Hopkins' story goes on to show that the very same construction methods were used widely in the farflung native villates.

The report is by the Cold Climate Research Center in Fairbanks. And while we couldn't locate the exact report Hopkins wrote about on the center's website, we did find this Alaska housing assessment. It says two-thirds of the really bad homes -- they used a highly technical term  here: "falling apart" -- are in rural Alaska, mostly in the small native villages.  And many of those buildings are quite small -- with one out of every five featuring less than 200 square feet of living space per occupant.

Hopkins spoke with David Fitka, who lives in the Yukon River village of Marshall. He said of his home, built in Idaho in 1978:

From the beginning, you could see that the building was made from low-grade products.

Bear wars continue in great frozen North

Recalling Western Exposure's posts earlier this summer on the various bear attacks in the Rocky Mountain West, we wonder if the bears of Canada and Alaska have heard about the Bear Wars coming their way:

  • In southern Alberta, a three-year-old bear with no apparent fear of people, which had been living in and among the people of Canmore, was killed in downtown Fort St. John by the RCMP. "A lot of us were pretty discouraged," Alberta senior wildlife biologist Jon Jorgenson told Canwest News Service. "We worked with this bear quite a bit. We knew the bear quite well. He didn't seem to mind being near people."
  • Hiking upslope in the dark through a thicket of hemlock near Sitka, deer hunter Karl Wolfe ran smack into a grizzly that promptly gave him two chomps on the arm. Wolfe smacked the bruin with his rifle and, while lying down, chambered a round and fired it. Then he managed to escape. Wildlife officers on Baranof Island in southeast Alaska are on the lookout for a brown bear, possibly wounded. Wolfe isn't sure if his shot hit the bear.

-- Robert McClure

Oklahoma firm stakes massive AK mining claim, angering natives

Wow. What's shaping up as another fractious Alaskan mining battle -- possibly as contentious as those already raging on the Pebble and Kensington mines--  just hit the headlines today.

It's a little puzzling that this supposed $35 billion gold find in Southeast Alaska -- that's a huge find, if true -- has induced only three short news stories since emerging this morning in the Juneau Empire. That's particularly true considering that this one seems destined to cause a lot of controversy, as  some of the land claimed by Oklahoma City-based Geohedral LLC is revered as sacred by Native Americans. Not to mention that people living in the area, near Yukatat, are heavily dependent on fisheries that they are pretty sure are going to be hurt by the mining. Many are subsistence fishermen.

However, Herb Mee Jr., president of The Beard Co., which owns a 23 percent stake in Geohedral, told Eric Morrison of the Empire:

We envision no environmental problems in what we will be doing.

Now, as we have previously documented, hardrock mines like this have a history of going great guns when metals prices are high -- gold's now trading at nearly $1,000 an ounce, representing roughly a quadrupling in price in the last decade -- and then going belly up when metals prices drop. Our work also showed that sometimes, these mines stick taxpayers with massive cleanup bills.

That's what locals in Yukatat fear. Said Raymond Sensmeier, a fisherman and member of the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe Council:

We're deeply concerned ...

They call it Fubar, and it shows how restoring forests creates jobs

Fubar is the name of a stream on Alaska's Prince of Wales Island, and apparently it's appropriately named. FUBAR, of course, is an acronym meaning "Fouled up beyond all recognition," or something pretty close to that, anyway.

It's the central scene in a news story by Mary Pemberton of the Associated Press outlining how restoration efforts in the national forests are helping restore jobs in places let down by the timber industry across the West:

Forest restoration is occurring all over the West, said Mary Mitsos with the National Forest Foundation, a Montana-based group. Efforts in Montana, Alaska, Washington and Oregon involve repairing watersheds to encourage healthier fish runs. In Arizona and New Mexico, restoration is more about forest thinning to lessen the danger of wildfires.

At Fubar Creek, soil washed into the waterway from clearcuts upslope, filling it in and causing the water to go all over the place, including a nearby road.  The restoration there in the Tongass National Forest and elsewhere in southeastern Alaska added $8.4 million and 150 jobs to the economy in 2007, according to a study by The Nature Conservancy.

Pemberton quotes Marnie Criley, coordinator of the Montana Forest Restoration Committee:

People are getting to know each other and not automatically hating each other because this person is a timber person and this person is a conservationist. A lot of trust-building has been going on.

We should point out that this is not a new trend. In fact, we wrote about enviros making peace with loggers and agreeing to some logging in Washington's Gifford Pinchot National Forest back in 2004.

Nor does this mean peace is breaking out in the War In the Woods.