Commentary: Fairbanks Daily News Miner,  February 2, 2003

Pipeline action wrong-headed

 

By Stan Stephens

In her first major action, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski inserted an amendment in an appropriations bill to prevent citizens from challenging the Interior Department's review and renewal of the trans-Alaska pipeline right of way agreement in court. What purpose, she asked, could such a suit possibly serve?

Sen. Murkowski answered her own question with the shrill and specious claim that "irresponsible radical environmental groups" might try to shut down the pipeline to lock up Alaska, serving no purpose "except enriching Outside trial lawyers."

I don't think Sen. Murkowski knew what she was talking about. Last summer I attended five of the public hearings on the proposed renewal of the pipeline right of way. The vast majority of the many citizens and organizations who expressed concerns about the trans-Alaska pipeline did not seek to shut down the pipeline. Rather, we asked for new procedures in the renewal grant to ensure safe delivery of oil for the next 30 years.

It is very clear that Sen. Murkowski was unfamiliar with the government review she called "very thorough" and "very complete." But she was right about one thing: That record is voluminous.

Among other things, that record shows that in Cordova, where more than 30 people testified, every single person expressed dismay with the short time allowed for review; many endorsed the recommendations of the Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility; all were local residents except one (a visiting kayaker).

Further north along the pipeline corridor, at Glennallen, Minto and also Barrow, the message and concerns were the same. Many presented firsthand examples or referred officials to the Alaska Forum's detailed report on the trans-Alaska pipeline and the failures of the trans-Alaska pipeline oversight process.

In Barrow, even strong oil industry supporters like North Slope Borough Mayor George Ahmaogak Jr., called for creation of a trans-Alaska pipeline corridor citizens' oversight group modeled after the ones that Congress established for Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet after the Exxon Valdez spill.

The record also contains at least a dozen pieces of testimony by myself, other Alaska Forum board members and our consultant identifying, discussing and documenting problems on the pipeline that need to be fixed. At least 100 people expressed similar concerns.

The Joint Pipeline Office and Alyeska say they have plans on paper to deal with many (but not all) of these important issues. But paperwork doesn't get the job done, especially when the pipeline owners' committee, concerned with the bottom line, defers important projects to a later date.

We watched with growing disappointment as it became clear that government officials were generating still more paperwork while ignoring our concerns. We also commented publicly in these pages and elsewhere.

If Sen. Murkowski knew of these concerns, she chose to ignore them. Instead, she talked about the phantom prospect of a pipeline shutdown and the cost of a lawsuit. Failure to remedy documented problems from the North Slope to Valdez in a timely manner poses a much greater threat to the pipeline's operation and could cost many, many times more in environmental damage.

By declaring a lawsuit unnecessary, Sen. Murkowski is saying that citizens' input in unimportant, and that government knows more than the citizens she is supposed to represent. By enacting legislation preventing recourse to the courts, she is taking away fundamental civil rights. By putting that legislation in the budget, she is adopting the worst habits of Sen. Stevens.

Abe Lincoln once said, "God must have loved the common man because he made so many of us." It is too bad that no one in the Alaska delegation is watching out for the interests of the common man. In one of her first acts, Sen. Murkowski has chosen to protect special interests rather than the public interest.

Ironically, Sen. Murkowski feels that state and federal regulators are free from political pressure, while the citizens who testified last summer are not. The documents in the shabby record praised by Sen. Murkowski clearly show that she has it absolutely backwards.

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Stan Stephens of Valdez is president of the Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility.