Archive for the ‘Green in Alaska’ Category
What’s most striking about an examination of the political activities of Bob Gillam, the richest man in Alaska, is the carnage that he’s left in his wake. The rich really are different: they don’t have to care about the consequences.
The Anchorage Daily News has a recent partial summary of a small part of the chaos created by Gillam and his associates. Assuming the Daily News has it right, it’s safe to say that no one in the story emerges unsplattered by the mud and blood generated by Gillam’s obsessions.
Gillam famously paid the largest Alaska Public Office Commission fine ever, $25,000. It turns out that the complaint that led to that fine was based upon records that a fundraiser named Robert Kaplan sold to the enemy for $50,000. Kaplan was unhappy because he hadn’t been paid by Gillam. So he sold Gillam’s donor list to Pebble’s lawyer.
Department of Free Advice: Here’s a tip to nonprofits everywhere. Be careful who you trust with your donor list. The donor list is the crown jewels of any nonprofit. You transfer it to someone else at your grave peril.
Art Hackney, of Hackney & Hackney, is probably the best known political flack in Alaska. Apparently, it was Hackney who trusted Kaplan with the anti-Pebble donor list. Hackney claims his business was decimated by Kaplan’s betrayal. WC is trying to work up a tear for Hackney; no luck so far, Art. Karma can be a bitch.
Kaplan’s ill-advised claims against Hackney and Gillam backfired. Partly it appears to have been Gillam’s deeper pockets, partly karmic retribution and partly a deeply unsympathetic claimant. Kaplan had some big judgments entered against him. He’s in bankruptcy. Bad news, Kaplan: not all of those big judgments will get discharged in bankruptcy. WC can’t work up a tear for you, either.
So the APOC case went ahead, based in substantial part on the stuff Kaplan sold to Pebble’s lawyer. Gillam had to pay a $25,000 fine under a settlement agreement in which he did not admit misconduct. Gillam proably paid the fine out of petty cash; he invested at least $2 million in the underlying election. A $25,000 fine is chicken feed in comparison.
Paul Dauphinais, the executive director of the Alaska Public Offices Commission, didn’t like the settlement, and didn’t mind saying so. Dauphinais thinks Gillam is a scofflaw and a serial violator of Alaska campaign finance laws. There’s evidence to support Dauphinais’s position; Gillam has subsequently been nailed for failing to report free air travel to candidates he supported. But APOC has also ruled in Gillam’s favor, including opining that Citizen’s United applied to Alaska state and municipal elections, for example.
And then Pebble Attorney Matt Singer, acting for Joel Natwick, filed another APOC complaint against Gillam in August 2012, claiming that Gillam grossly underreported his total expenditures on behalf of Gillam’s Save Our Salmon Initiative in Lake and Peninsula Borough. The facts are particularly egregious, because it is the same misconduct that led to an earlier fine. But APOC has done nothing with that case in the nine months since it was filed.
Because Gillam is now suing Dauphinais and APOC. For picking on him. Gillam claims that Dauphinais is out to get him. A more … objective … viewer might think that Dauphinais and APOC are simply doing their jobs. A more objective viewer might think that Gillam, a multi-millionaire, who owns a palatial quasi-lodge on Lake Clark, simply has the worst case of NIMBY in the history of the State of Alaska. And Gillam has plainly demonstrated he’s willing to violate the law in indulging his NIMBYism.
In the meantime, as we all wait for Anchorage Superior Court Judge Kevin Saxby to rule on Gillam’s claims of harrassment, APOC appears to be two-blocked by Gillam’s lawsuit. There’s nothing WC can find in either the superior court file or the APOC file to indicate there’s a formal order stopping Natwick’s APOC complaint from going forward. But nothing is happening in the case. So by the simple, if slightly expensive, expedient of a lawsuit Gillam has apparently immunized himself from Alaska’s campaign finance laws. Impressive. And depressing.
The really ironic part of all this is that WC is personally strongly opposed to the proposed Pebble Mine, too. But is seriously embarrassed whenever anyone suggests WC and Bob Gillam are on the same side.
Department of Free Advice: The enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend.
Don’t misunderstand, the Pebble Partnership isn’t a choir of angels, either. But the ends don’t justify the means. That’s a path to chaos. Being rich shouldn’t excuse you from playing by the rules. No matter which side you are on. Any other policy leads to chaos and carnage. Q.E.D.
You’d think that a former governor who presided over the most corrupt government in Alaska since statehood would stay home and write his memoirs or something. You’d think a former Governor whose own Chief of Staff served a prison sentence for illegal campaign contributions would thank his lucky stars that Chief of Staff didn’t tell the Feds everything he knew and would keep discretely quiet. You’d think a failed candidate who helped give us Sarah Palin would have the simple decency to maintain an embarrassed silence. You’d think the man who single-handedly killed a national bank and seriously wounded a regional Native corporation would just shut up. But we’re talking about Frank “the Bank” Murkowski. You remember. Murky.
Which explains why Murky was in front of the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce recently. Not to apologize for being a disaster as Governor. Not to apologize for stuff that happened on his watch. Not even to make excuses. No, he was in front of the Chamber to blame everything on “extreme environmentalists.”
WC supposes that on Murky’s scale of environmentalists WC counts as one of those extremists. WC thinks that before you dig up the millions of tons of coal on the North Slope, maybe you need to think about the consequences for the planet of pumping all that CO2 and dirty-coal pollution into the atmosphere. WC thinks that before you cut more old growth forest in the Tongass National Forest you have a care for the future of the forest, the impact on fisheries and the impact on tourism. WC thinks before you dig the world’s largest gold and copper mine and create the world’s largest sulfide-laced, heavy metal-contaminated lake and spoil heap, you think about whether that’s a smart idea in the world’s most productive salmon habitat. WC thinks that before you drill for oil near Teshekpuk Lake, you consider whether that can be done without jeopardizing tens of millions of migratory birds.
Let me put this in terms Murky is certain to understand. If considering those things before proceeding with development makes you an extreme environmentalist, WC pleads guilty as charged.
More than that, though, WC thinks that among all but the most rabid drillers and diggers, even in Alaska, the days of jobs at any price are behind us. A majority of Alaskans were shocked and appalled at the Keystone Cops act of Shell Oil and its attempts to drill in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. The days of “Drill, Baby, drill” are an embarrassing memory.
But not to Murky.
Nor is he any more honest now than he was as governor. The claim that no oil has been produced from federal lands? He implies that’s because of extreme environmentalists. But, of course, all the oil has been produced from federal lands. Some of it – the stuff with the very highest potential for oil and gas – was selected by the State of Alaska under the Statehood Act. We’ve got the good stuff. The Feds have leased land for development; remember Shell Oil’s Keystone Cops act? All of that was on off-shore federal land. It just hasn’t produced any oil or gas. Millions of federal acres are available for development. Most recently, the overwhelming majority of National Petroleum Reserve Alaska has been made available for lease. Under a Democratic President. Something that didn’t happen during Murky’s tenure as U.S. Senator. The oil companies just haven’t found marketable quantities of oil. Blaming “extreme environmentalists” is fundamentally dishonest. It’s Murky.
But ignore the straw man arguments. Ignore the dishonest arguments. Murky’s view is that development is so overwhelmingly important that nothing else matters. It’s a minority view. Even in Alaska. Maybe even at the Chamber of Commerce. We’ve moved on.
Nothing to see here. Just another old geezer stuck in the 1970s. Move along.
WC is an unabashed, unapologetic conservationist. WC is sad to report that one of the founders of the conservation movement in Alaska has died.
It was, WC believes, in the early summer of 1969 or so. WC was at Eielson Visitor Center. A group of tourists, 3-4 people, were out in front of the Center in the bright sunlight, feeding scraps of their lunches to Stony, a young, male grizzly bear. An older woman, dressed in a bright flannel shirt and an Aussie hat with the brim up on one side, appeared. She clapped her hands loudly, yelled and spooked Stony, sending him galloping down the hill. “Don’t do that, don’t feed the bears,” she scolded the tourists. “It will end badly for you and for the bear.” That was Ginny.
Fast forward to probably the summer of 1973. WC and a buddy were driving along the Richardson Highway in Black Rapids Canyon, coming back from bouldering in Flood Creek Canyon. A helicopter swooped out of the sky in front of my buddy’s very distinctive yellow Volkswagen Beetle and a woman leaped out. “I’m helping identify potential hiking trails,” she told WC’s buddy. “Want to help?” So WC wound up driving back to Fairbanks in the Beetle by himself. That was Ginny, too.
Still later, at some reception or other at the University of Alaska Museum, probably in the mid-1980s. Someone tried to introduce WC to Ginny. “Wait,” she said, “I know you, you were with Tim when I kidnapped him. I’ve always felt bad about leaving you.” That was Ginny.
Still later, at some reception or other at Alaska Bird Observatory, some time in the mid- to late-1990s. Ginny was standing with Brina Kessel, the grand dame of Alaska birds and her friend and Camp Denali partner, Celia Hunter. They were laughing their heads off, sharing some joke. It was a sight to see, probably two and a half centuries of amazing life experiences, guffawing like children. It makes WC smile now to think about it. And that was Ginny, too.
A powerful, long time voice for Alaska conservation has been lost. With Denny Wilcher and Celia Hunter, she pretty much created the Alaska conservation movement. She led an extraordinary life. As a teenager, she worked on dude ranches, and later dropped out of college to become a pilot with the Women’s Air Force Service Pilot program, ferrying military aircraft around the country during World War II. After the war, she visited Alaska with friend and fellow pilot Celia Hunter and decided to stay.
In 1952 the pair, along with Ginny’s new husband Morton “Woody” Wood, established Camp Denali, a wilderness lodge north of Mount McKinley. Eight years later, along with a small group of Fairbanks conservationists, the two women founded Alaska’s first statewide environmental organization, the Alaskan Conservation Society. They helped establish the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, worked to defeat projects threatening Alaska’s pristine wilderness areas, and were instrumental in the passage of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which protected over 100 million acres of federal lands.
In 1991, both Celia and Ginny were given the John Muir Award, the Sierra Club’s highest honor, and Great Old Broads for Wilderness honored them as Canyon Crones in 1995. In 2001, they were awarded lifetime achievement awards by the Alaska Conservation Foundation. Hunter passed away later that year, at the age of 82.
There’s a very good biography of Ginny, Boots, Bikes and Bombers, available from the University of Alaska Press if you want to read more about this truly remarkable woman.
And now Ginny has died. The torch has truly been passed. We will try to do you proud, Ginny.
As WC writes, the Shell drill platform Kulluk is grounded off the rocky shore of Sitkalidak island, off of Kodiak Island, not far from Old Harbor. A more or less average winter storm in the Gulf of Alaska was too much for the towing operation. How long the Kulluk will remain there, whether she will break up from being pounded on the rocks, and whether any of the 150,0000 gallons of diesel on board will spill into the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge are all good questions. That don’t currently have answers.
This is a whole separate ship from the Noble Discoverer. That drilling platform pulled her anchors in Unalaska and, depending on who you believe, ran aground or nearly ran aground. And it’s the Noble Discoverer that was busted in Seward earlier this winter for a number of safety and pollution violations.
And don’t confuse either of these drilling platforms with the pollution control ship, the Arctic Challenger, which still hasn’t gotten Coast Guard certification.
How did anyone ever think that drilling in these waters was a good idea? An “acceptable” risk?
Increasingly, Shell Oil looks like the Keystone Cops, amusing in an old-time silent film, but about as scary as it gets if you care about Alaska, its fishing industry or its environment.
If there was ever a reason to trust Shell Oil, can we all agree that the reason is gone?
We don’t have Brian Newton to kick around any more. The General Manager of Golden Valley Electric Association resigned suddenly and unexpectedly. A recruiting effort to find a replacement is under way. In the meantime, local attorney for GVEA, Cory Borgeson, is serving as interim General Manager.
For out-of-towners who read this blog, Golden Valley Electric Association – GVEA – is the electric service provider for all of Interior Alaska. Through an embarrassing, expensive and improbable series of gaffes and bad planning, GVEA generates a 60% of the electric power it sells measured by fuel cost (37% by kilowatt hour) by burning oil. GVEA has a spur pipeline of of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline at North Pole, Alaska, drawing from the Trans Alaska Pipeline. It is very, very expensive energy, sometimes, depending on the price of crude. Piss-poor planning.
GVEA was also involved in a disastrous “Clean Coal” power project in Healy, Alaska, which promised a high tech solution to the problems of burning coal. Especially the problems of burning low grade lignite coal just a few miles from Denali National Park. The short version of that long disaster is that Healy II hasn’t produced a kilowatt of power and sits idle, a failed technology.
But recriminations about bad planning over 15 years aren’t a solution. WC would like to look instead at some numbers gleaned from the annual reports available on-line. Because GVEA annual reports have varied in what they disclose and how they disclose it over the years, it’s a bit difficult to compare straight across. And these numbers are not corrected for inflation.
|Total Members||36,945||37,154 (2009)|
|General and Administrative Expenses||$2,757,997||$9,729,758|
|Total Long Term Debt||$138,069,421||$284,430,780|
Now sometimes GVEA list “members,” and sometimes it lists “meters,” and it doesn’t always seem to be consistent across annual reports. But if WC has this right, for an effectively unchanged number of members in the co-op, from 1998 to 2010 long term debt at GVEA has more than doubled and general and administrative expenses are up an astonishing 350%. Even Brian Newton’s amazing $455,000 salary can’t explain that increase. Whatever severance package he got isn’t even on these books. And it can’t all be Mike Kelly’s retirement package.
GVEA’s proposed solution to the high cost of producing energy is to start up the abandoned Healy II plant as a traditional coal-fired power station. WC is skeptical that a huge new point source for air pollution a few miles from Denali National Park is going to get green-lighted by the Feds, or even should be approved by the Feds, but assuming that happened, any “lower costs of fuel” are created by failing to address the true cost of burning coal. Coal produces at least twice as much CO2 per unit of electricity as does natural gas. Coal injects more sulfates, nitrates and fine particulates into the atmosphere. Coal is “cheaper” than other hydrocarbons only if you leave those costs off of the balance sheet. And then there’s the transmission loss moving that new electricity from Healy, where there is very little demand, to Fairbanks, something like 100 miles of controversial high transmission lines.
The true savings from burning natural gas are so great the GVEA should be working harder and faster at trucking natural gas from the North Slope to Fairbanks and converting the North Pole power plant to gas. Trucking should be the bridge to a pipeline from the Slope to the Interior. The economics are very good because natural gas prices are very low now, as a result of increased natural gas production stateside. It’s not just WC pushing this idea; Dermot Cole thinks it’s pretty attractive as well. The availability of natural gas for residential heating is an added plus. The project is reportedly under way at GVEA, but it’s pretty unclear exactly where it stands.
GVEA also needs a freeze on hiring and a serious discussion about the long term debt issue. There are likely real savings there as well. But the big savings are from getting off oil.
But GVEA, at least under the Newton administration, would rather mount a protest the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, which is actually a member of GVEA. And NAEC’s members are, for the most part, themselves members of GVEA. All because NAEC knows that “clean coal” is an oxymoron. So we have been treated to the ugly sight of a monopoly nonprofit picketing another nonprofit. It’s divisive in a community that doesn’t need more divisive issues. And it accomplishes nothing useful.
Those readers who are GVEA customers should talk to their Board members. We own this outfit.
Can we all agree Shell doesn’t inspire confidence?
The company is mounting the first ever oil and gas drilling operation far off shore in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. We are supposed to trust them to do it right, although WC is deeply skeptical.First, one of the vessels in its Chukchi Sea-bound fleet, tellingly the oil spill containment barge, the grandiosely-named Arctic Challenger, has failed to pass Coast Guard inspection and, as WC writes, remains disabled from leaving Dutch Harbor. So far, the Feds have refused to allow Shell’s drilling program to go forward without the oil containment barge. Can we all agree that Shell’s failure to meet the minimum requirements for conditions in the area is troubling?
Now, we have this:
The 541-foot long Noble Discoverer slipped dragged its anchor and ran aground – Shell claims the ship “drifted toward land and stopped very near the coast.” Unalaska residents on the scene, who know a little bit about boats, water and coasts, are pretty clear that the Noble Discovered was aground, happily on mud and not rocks.
The inattention to critical duties gives anyone familiar with the history of the oil industry and offshore drilling a sinking feeling in the gut. Lying about what happened is only to be expected. WC more or less expects the oil industry to lie.
An this Keystone Cops act is going to drill in a pristine Arctic environment?
While WC was in Cordova for the Copper River Delta Shorebird Festival, he spent most of a day aboard the Auklet, Dave and Annette Janka’s lovely wooden-hulled charter boat.
While the Auklet primarily charters for research cruises, Janka does do day trips and half-day trips out of Cordova. He’s a knowledgeable birder, knows the waters well and an interesting guy as well.
Captain Janka put WC on some good birds. A few samples.
There’s a subsistence hunt in Cordova, and as a result all of the birds were pretty spooky. But Captain Janka was willing to invest the time in letting the Auklet drift closer to the birds. Not all charter captains are that patient.
This small flock of Pelagic Cormorants was taking advantage of a brief sunny interval to preen and dry. The light was impossible, so WC settled for a silhouette shot.
Captain Janka, as a part of his charter service, thoughtfully provides a group photo and a chart of the route taken by the ship while you were aboard. In the interests of WC’s nominal anonymity, WC appends the shot of the group with binoculars up.
Captain Janka thoughtfully provided the foam pads for WC’s tripod, to minimize the engine vibration. And they worked. The person to WC’s right is a sergeant in the Unalaska Department of Public Safety, and the author of the excellent Police Blotter published in the The Dutch Harbor Telegraph. Sample entry:
1845 – Owner of a local business reported that an individual had asked to see a $70 necklace from display case. The patron grabbed the necklace and attempted to flee the store. The Darwin Award nominee was unable to operate the front door which he pushed when it required that he pull. The clodpoll returned the necklace and apologized. The business owner declined to pursue charges.
We had a very nice conversation on the sad state of American writing skills today. Dutch Harbor is fortunate.
Here’s the chart of the Auklet’s route, in the eastern corner of Prince William Sound:
It’s a tiny, tiny fraction of the vast Prince William Sound, of course, and one of the few areas that escaped the damage caused by the Exxon Valdez disaster. Other areas are not so fortunate. A number of species, including Orcas, still have very seriously reduced populations, and one pod of Orcas seems to be on the way to extirpation. Captain Janka has documented the continued presence of substantial quantities of crude oil elsewhere in the Sound:
Exxon Mobile claims in ongoing court proceedings that all is well. Wrong.
But in the eastern third of the Sound, where we were, if you don’t know what used to be there, you can pretend it is normal. But it is pretending.
Still, Captain Janka ran an excellent trip, serves good coffee and WC had a lot of fun. He has WC’s unqualified endorsement and recommendation.
Apart from a few crackpot politicians and flat earthers, no one who has seriously looked at the issue denies that the polar sea ice is melting. Because it’s the habitat of polar bears, no one except Governer Sean Parnell denies that the melting sea ice presents a crisis for polar bears. But it was all right, somehow, in the minds of a discouraging number of citizens and scientists. Because polar bears were just specially adapted brown bears, really. Somehow, and WC was never very clear about this logic, “just pale grizzlies.” So it was okay to extirpate them. There’s lots of grizzlies.
Now we know that the idea polar bears are just adapted brown bears is a lie. A comfortable lie, but a lie. A recent article in Science Magazine (paywall) examines the DNA of polar bears and concludes they separated from a common ancestor with brown bears some 600,000 years ago. They can still interbreed with brown bears, but they’ve been their own species for much longer than had been previously thought. We really are on the verge of extirpating a genuine species.
There’s even genetic evidence that there have been warming periods before, when comparatively small portions of the polar bear population survived. But the difference in those earlier episodes is that they happened slowly; only the current, anthropocene warming episode is happening over the course of a few decades. The evidence from gases preserved in glacial ice and elsewhere is that earlier warming episodes occurred over centuries.
It’s difficult to assess how the new science will impact the pending litigation. The US Fish & Wildlife Service has issued a special Interim Rule classifying the species as threatened in response to an earlier lawsuit challenging the 2008 determined that the species was endangered. The critical habitat designation still stands, making most of northern and northwestern Alaska critical habitat. Governor Parnell is suing over that, but at this date the habitat classification still stands and, based on precedent, the habitat classification is unlikely to be successfully challenged.
Some years ago, WC was privileged to visit The Magic Castle. Over a very good supper, WC watched a number of magicians, amateur and professional, perform a number of tricks and illusions. One builds a ten story high house of cards, putting together the whole thing in a matter of two and a half minutes. Then he proceeded to pull cards out of the middle and bottom, asking the audience how many he could remove before it collapsed. The answer was eight. Then the whole edifice collapsed.
Take it as a metaphor.
Repsol has officially plugged the blown-out gas well on the North Slope. Readers will remember that the well blew out at 10:29 AM on February 15, 2012; the well was officially plugged at 1:30 PM on March 18, 2012. If you had your stop watches going to see how long it would take to plug a blown-out well on land, the answer is
32 days, 3 hours and 1 minute.
As Shell presses ahead with its plans to drill in the Chukchi Sea, 30-50 miles off shore from Wainwright, ask yourself this question: how long will it take to plug a blow-out there?
Doesn’t it seem obvious it will take even longer? And what will be the impact on the admittedly fragile Chukchi Sea in the meantime?
Don’t say a blowout won’t happen, because it has. Don’t say we have the technology to deal with it, because we don’t. Ask instead, at what point does our addiction to petroleum and natural gas become to expensive to bear?
Royal Dutch Shell continues to inch towards drilling in the Chukchi Sea, possibly as early as Spring 2013. WC believes there will be a disaster, that it will not be contained with any degree of effectiveness, and that the Chukchi Sea and its marine environment will be permanently and seriously damaged. It’s not just WC’s normally pessimistic view of oil field technology in general and Big Oil in particular. It is simply learning the lessons of experience.
ITEM. We have the lesson of the Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Eleven killed, sixteen injured and 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled. The abject failure of technology, the corner-cutting at the expense of safety, the lies from the industry and the clumsy response are all matters of public record. Shell attempts to distinguish the Deepwater Horison from the Chukchi Drilling efffort: Deepwater involved 5,000 feet of water, while the Chuckchi project is about 150 feet. But the Deepwater involved a shirtsleeve climate, immense resources only 75 miles away and, of course, water that is a liquid year round. The Chukchi project involves severely limited resources at least a thousand miles away, a true arctic environment and ice that’s ten feet thick.
ITEM. Off shore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico is a relatively mature technology; there are literally thousands of wells. The Chukchi project is the first true offshore (as opposed to man-made island-based) drilling in the arctic environment in the United States. It is unprecedented. All technology, by definition, is experimental and unproven.
ITEM. Alaska has the experience of the Exxon Valdez, and the lasting damage to Prince William Sound, the failure of cleanup technologies in a much milder climate and utter failure of Exxon to behave effectively or responsibly. Alaska has the experience of BP plc, which has failed to adequately maintain the feeder lines and other infrastructure on the North Slope. And the lessons of history: when the going gets tough, the big corporations simply leave. Ask McCarthy whether Kennecott was to be trusted.
ITEM. Respol, a pretty respectable mid-major Spanish oil company, had Nabors Drilling working on a new well on the Qugruk #2 pad in the Colville Delta earlier this year. They hit an unexpected pocket of gas. The well, still at a relatively shallow 2,523 feet, blew out, spewing 42,000 gallons of drilling mud, natural gas and whatever else was in the gas pocket all over the Colville Delta. The drill rig had to be shut down to avoid an explosion. The rig, the blown-out mud and everything else, froze in the sub-zero temperatures. Now, in the memorable phrase of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, just re-starting the drilling rig – the first step to controlling the well – “has proven a difficult task.” There is no time frame for getting that situation under control.
Now imagine a gas kickback like the incident at Qugruk #2 Pad 70 miles off shore, perhaps with the added challenge of mixed gas and oil merrily bubbling into the Chukchi Sea while Shell tries to deal with a drilling rig coated in frozen mud and a damaged drill rig, on a platform that’s been evacuated because there’s explosive natural gas around. The Qugruk well blew on February 15; more than a week later, the well is still not under control. How long would control take 70 miles off shore? Oh, and add in a typical bad Chukchi storm for more excitement.
Is there a single, informed person (other than Sean Parnell), not employed by the oil industry, who thinks that kind of disaster can be managed? Who thinks an oil company can be trusted? Trusted with the future of the Chukchi Sea? The subsistence life of the Inupiaq people? Who thinks this kind of disaster can’t happen?
Is there anyone who believes that, in the event of a disaster, Shell will behave more responsibly than Exxon? Than BP?
WC bows to no one in his respect for technology. WC invented the term “technogeekery” to describe himself. But there is no technology to deal with these kinds of problems. It doesn’t exist. Shell has disaster plans, but these are words on paper. Respol had a disaster plan. Reality is something else entirely. It’s the lesson of experience.
In a blog post titled “Proposition 2: A Classic Case for Limited Government, a blogger named Pete Alexion writing for an organization called Alaskans for Limited Government calls supporters of Fairbanks North Star Borough Proposition #2 “advocates of unlimited government.” But to understand the illogic of this claim, WC’s readers need some background.
Fairbanks sits in a bowl, with the north, east and west sides closed in by the foothills of the White Mountains. Combined with the air inversions we get here, where lenses of warmer air sit on top of colder, lower air, and you have a natural trap for polluted air. Fairbanks has a long history of horribly bad air quality. When coal was the principle heating fuel here, the winter months were ghastly. Combined with tail pipe emissions, prior to the federal environmental laws of the 1970s and the arrival of affordable home heating oil, there were extended periods when Fairbanks’ air was chokingly bad.
Much cleaner-burning heating oil has supplanted coal as the primary heating fuel since construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. But recent spikes in heating oil prices have sent some citizens scurrying to alternative energy sources, including external wood-fired boilers. These are essentially giant wood stoves, set away from the house, that furnish hot water for heat. Some of these products produce truly appalling amounts of air pollution, partly as a result of wretched design and partly because their owners burn green wood, automobile tires, coal, dog crap, plastics and worse. When such a boiler is located in an urbanized area, the fumes are inflicted on the neighbors. When such a boiler is located next door to an elementary school, the problem is even worse. It’s a known, acknowledged health hazard.
There’s been an immense amount of legal and legislative sparring and wrangling over the problem. A current effort is a citizen initiative, Borough Proposition #2, which would regulate these point sources of air pollution.
It’s the context of this relatively mild effort to solve a very serious health issue that Alaskans for Limited Government has weighed in with an extended blog post, claiming that anyone supporting Proposition #2 is an “advocate of unlimited government.” For an organization that claims logic and reason as its guideposts, that an appalling example of hyperbole. In fact, the entire blog post is chock full of the kind of silly errors and excitable hyperbole WC has come to expect from the anti-tax, anti-government crowd in Interior Alaska.
Most armchair environmentalists, in spite of their good intentions, refuse to consider the entire impact of their decisions and remain myopic to their personal agenda. For example, paper sacks were frowned upon because trees were consumed in the process. Industry responded with plastic bags that would remain toxic to landfills. The end result of frantic emotions was the creation of a greater threat to Mother Earth and the human race.
That turns out not to be such a good example. The switch to plastic bags was an industry effort to reduce costs; plastic bags are cheaper to make than paper bags. Environmentalism didn’t enter into the decision. You can still ask for paper and not plastic at most grocery stores. The plastic bags are designed to break down in the environment. All major stores recycle plastic bags. And, in any event, those “arm chair environmentalists” you deprecate generally bring reusable bags. And WC is unaware of any evidence that the cumulative effect of plastic bags is actually worse than the cumulative effect of the same number of paper bags.
Let’s not forget that many businesses and homeowners switched to wood and coal to decrease dependency on fossil fuels. When demand decreases, supply increases and price decreases. All of us benefit from their actions.
There are two items in this quote that should make a responsible blogger cringe. First, coal is a fossil fuel. Seriously, Mr. Alexion, think about it. Burning coal is burning a fossil fuel. It doesn’t reduce dependency on fossil fuels. It’s swapping one kind of fossil fuel for another.
Second, petroleum is famously price inelastic. Reducing demand for heating oil, a petroleum product, in Fairbanks, Alaska, isn’t going to have any impact at all on the price of heating oil. The tiny fraction of North Slope production we consume isn’t going to have any impact at all on the price we are charged. Before you opine further on economics, WC recommends you study the subject just a bit.
But once you get past the bad examples, the bad economics and the hyperbole, Mr. Alexion’s point seems to be that we should all be able to get along. He’s asking, “Can’t we just work this out without the government getting involved?”
That hasn’t worked so well, has it? Even the subsidized exchange of the really bad furnaces for less horrible ones hasn’t worked. Scofflaws refuse to pay even part of the price for a new furnace. Of course, if we were all good neighbors, none of us would drive drunk. Or burglarize houses. Or clog the courts with domestic violence cases. Sometimes it takes the force of law to bring a scofflaw around to reason. It’s the reality. Not everyone plays nice without the threat of the government.
All of which is why WC will be voting in favor of Proposition #2. And yes, WC has a wood stove, and uses it for heat into early winter. And yes, it is a modern stove that meets environmental requirements. And no, WC bought it with his own hard-earned money, not with a government subsidy. And yes, WC burns only seasoned wood. The guy down at the bottom of Summit Drive? No so much.
By the way, WC would claim Rocky MacDonald, this organization’s treasurer, as a friend. But it doesn’t make him, or his organization, right about this issue.
So vote “Yes” on Borough Proposition #2.
This is WC’s own opinion, not paid for by anyone else. No money was expended in creating or posting this blog entry.
It’s obvious to WC that a primary goal of the current crop of Republican presidential wannabes, at least based upon their speeches in the primaries, is to abolish the EPA.
It might serve a purpose to recall the state of the environment when that radical liberal, Republican President Richad Nixon, signed the National Environmental Policy Act into law. Let’s choose just one example: the Cuyahoga River, which ones through Cleveland, Ohio into Lake Erie.
From 1,000 feet below Lower Harvard Bridge to Newburgh and South Shore Railroad Bridge, the channel becomes wider and deeper and the level is controlled by Lake Erie. Downstream of the railroad bridge to the harbor, the depth is held constant by dredging, and the width is maintained by piling along both banks. The surface is covered with the brown oily film observed upstream as far as the Southerly Plant effluent. In addition, large quantities of black heavy oil floating in slicks, sometimes several inches thick, are observed frequently. Debris and trash are commonly caught up in these slicks forming an unsightly floating mess. Anaerobic action is common as the dissolved oxygen is seldom above a fraction of a part per million. The discharge of cooling water increases the temperature by 10 to 15°F. The velocity is negligible, and sludge accumulates on the bottom. Animal life does not exist. Only the algae Oscillatoria grows along the piers above the water line.The color changes from gray-brown to rusty brown as the river proceeds downstream. Transparency is less than 0.5 feet in this reach. This entire reach is grossly polluted.
“The Cuyahoga River Watershed: Proceedings of a symposium commemorating the dedication of Cunningham Hall.” Kent State University, 1 November 1968.
According to the revisionist history in the Fordham University Law Review, there have reportedly been at least thirteen fires on the Cuyahoga River, the first occurring in 1868. The largest river fire in 1952 caused over $1 million in damage to boats and a riverfront office building. Fires erupted on the river several more times before June 22, 1969, when a river fire captured the attention of Time magazine, which described the Cuyahoga as the river that “oozes rather than flows” and in which a person “does not drown but decays.”
The 1969 fire was one of the primary incidents driving enactment of the Clean Water Act and creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. In a lot of ways, the Cuyahoga was the poster child for environmentalism, but that doesn’t mean the problems weren’t real, or that the health and safety of the nation were not in jeopardy. Ironically, the State of Ohio has made some progress in cleaning up the Cuyahoga since the inferno of 1952, but it was and remained an almost unbelievably polluted river.
Would everyone in the room who wants to return to those days please raise their hands? Anybody? No one?
Today the Cuyahoga River supports fish; in 1969 it barely supported anaerobic bacteria. The Neocons claim that the river would have been cleaned up without the federal intervention, but not on the available evidence. The Cuyahoga was in decline continuously from the middle 1860′s – when it first caught on fire – until the EPA stepped in in 1970. Post hoc ergo propter hoc and all that, but the cleanup occurred under the direction of the EPA, not in the 100 plus years of pollution that preceded creation of the EPA.
Laissez faire nearly destroyed America. Environmental protection, as deficient and limited as it may be, is a lower price than the alternative. Randy Newman sang,
There’s a red moon rising
On the Cuyahoga River
Rolling into Cleveland to the lake
There’s a red moon rising
On the Cuyahoga River
Rolling into Cleveland to the lake
There’s an oil barge winding
Down the Cuyahoga River
Rolling into Cleveland to the lake
There’s an oil barge winding
Down the Cuyahoga River
Rolling into Cleveland to the lake
Cleveland city of light city of magic
Cleveland city of light you’re calling me
Cleveland, even now I can remember
‘Cause the Cuyahoga River
Goes smokin’ through my dreams
Burn on, big river, burn on
Burn on, big river, burn on
Now the Lord can make you tumble
And the Lord can make you turn
And the Lord can make you overflow
But the Lord can’t make you burn
Burn on, big river, burn on
Burn on, big river, burn on
Randy Newman, “Burn On,” Sail Away (1972)
Can we not go back there, please? To paraphrase Dylan, “What do I have to pay to avoid going through all these things twice?”
WC apologizes to his friend Mr. Whitekeys for borrowing his trademark phrase, but there’s nothing else suitable for Governor Parnell’s latest follies with the Endangered Species Act. And specifically the Beluga Whale. Some background.
When a marine species is listed as endangered, as was the Beluga Whale, a Recovery Team is appointed by the National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”) to develop a Recovery Plan to get the species back to sustainable numbers and off the Endangered Species List. A Recovery Team consists of two NMFS-appointed panels: the 13 scientists, who are expected to act independently; and 19 stakeholders who are supposed to represent development interests, environmental organizations, municipalities and Natives. The 13 scientists are the Scientific Panel and write the Plan; the stakeholders are the Stakeholder Panel and advise.
The Scientific Panel is required by federal law to be independent. They can come from stakeholders but cannot be advocates from the stakeholders’ views. In the case of the Beluga Whale Scientific Panel,
The Scientific Panel is composed of beluga experts, scientists, and co-management partners, who were appointed as independent scientists/experts based upon their specific areas of expertise. They will not represent their agency or organization while serving in the capacity of a CIBRT Scientific Panel member. The primary functions of the Scientific Panel will be to advise NMFS about the key scientific data gaps and to develop the draft recovery plan.
Governor Parnell is already suing NMFS for classifying the Upper Cook Inlet Beluga Whales as endangered. WC thinks that’s the equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot. But now he has gone and emptied the whole clip into the offending limb. In March 2010 the State of Alaska adopted a gag order on its employees, requiring them to adhere to official State policy in dealing with external affairs:
These standards are not meant to hinder open internal debate over the development of departmental positions and policies; there is substantial value in such deliberative discussions. However, once a department position or policy is established, employees must present or adhere to such a position or policy when representing ADF&G, whether directly or through use of its affiliation or resources.
So the State employees and their expertise were required by State policy to advocate the State’s position; they were forbidden to adhere to the neutrality that NMFS and Congress requires. And so the state employees were removed from the Scientific Panel. The State of Alaska won’t have a hand in writing the Recovery Plan. The Recovery Plan won’t have the benefit of the state employees’ expertise. Alaska loses; Beluga Whales lose. Sounds like a Parnell deal to WC.
As a result of the State’s bull-headed inflexibility, all of the State’s eggs on Beluga Whales are in the single basket of Parnell’s silly lawsuit against the feds. The lawsuit is pretty lame; the ESA is probably the most tested piece of federal legislation on the books. It’s long odds the state will lose. There’s no backstop in the form of, say, moderating voices on the Recovery Team. Just environmentalists, academics and feds. It’s obviously folly. And it’s completely unnecessary. Alaska’s Beluga Whale specialists could participate in the Scientific Panel without compromising Parnell’s idiot lawsuit. To call the gag order “short-sighted” in this situation is a grave understatement.
But Parnell has taken his marbles out of the game and gone home. Or lost his marbles. Your call.
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner is reporting that the State of Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (“ADEC”) issued its first nuisance smoke citation in Fairbanks. The citation comes against a background in which the good citizens of the Fairbanks North Star Borough repealed most of the Borough’s air quality enforcement powers. Fairbanks’ famously bad air quality, and especially its fine particulates, jeopardize federal funding statewide.
The State is going to let that happen. The State can’t afford to let that happen. So the State exercised its enforcement powers against a residence for the first time.
Now WC drives past this clown’s outside boiler every day, going to and from work, and its really does reek. When the breeze drifts the fumes across the road, it would gag a maggot. Did the voters of the Borough think that the state wouldn’t act? While WC doesn’t commonly agree with the redoubtable Doug Yates, his comment to the story is a pretty apt summary:
When a local government is forced to abandon its responsibility to secure the health and welfare of its residents, then the state is obligated to pick up the slack. Why has this happened? A small group of zealots, some who are elected officials, used a hot button issue to mount an election that equated wood heating with personal freedom. Yet it was a false premise; no one in government was planning to deny people wood heat. It was a grandstanding gesture and has backfired on those who set it in motion. Will they pay the piper for their foolishness? Please stand by.
Now ADEC let this property owner off with a ceremonial slap on the wrist. But the steel fist is lurking inside the rabbit fur glove.
No doubt Rep. Tammy Wilson will have a cow. This is her issue. But it’s time for the grownups to step forward. The children can’t be trusted with the family checkbook.
BP is a huge part of Alaska, politically, economically, socially and financially. It’s also responsible for the safety and reliability of the North Slope oil field production system. That makes the New York Times article on the final hours of the Deepwater Horizon critical reading for Alaskans. The article is long, but absolutely riveting. And carries profound lessons for BP’s role in Alaska.
View the slide show, too.
Dear Governor Parnell:
You’ve now filed two lawsuits attacking the classification of Alaska animals as endangered species. You’ve asked the federal courts to reverse the classification of the Beluga Whales of Upper Cook Inlet as an endangered population. And you’ve asked the same thing regarding the Alaskan subspecies of the Polar Bear.
In both cases, you claim to be acting for the benefit of Alaskans. You claim that the classifications – specifically, the plans to protect the endangered species – will hurt Alaskans. Since the motivation for the lawsuits is to allow oil and gas extraction to proceed with less regulation, and since Alaska is the state suffering the most from the impacts of burning all that oil and gas, can we stop and think about this for a minute?
There are huge areas of China and Brazil that have lost their pollinating insects, including flies and beetles, so that now humans have to pollinate fruits and vegetables by hand using little dishes of pollen and paintbrushes. If that doesn’t make you nervous, what will? Besides, it is folly to think that we can destroy one species and ecosystem after another and not have it affect humanity. When we save species, we’re actually saving ourselves. We’re intricately tied to healthy, functioning ecosystems. But at a time when most folks – including you, apparently, Governor Parnell – have no idea how their food is produced, this is a tough sell.
I’m going to quote National Geographic photographer and writer Joel Sartore, speaking of an insect in his home state called the Salt Creek Tiger Beetle:
1) Save species and habitat to help save ourselves. To think that humans are not tied in tightly to the natural world is pure folly. In fact, we’re totally dependent on healthy, functioning ecosystems for our very survival, from the air we breathe to the food we eat to the water we drink. Notice that the frogs and bird species are thinning out? Those things are living monitors of the health of the earth. To think that we can escape their fate over the long haul is not realistic, to say the least.
2) We’re killing off the ark. All plants and animals, even the Salt Creek tiger beetle, are God’s creatures. Who are we to purposely kill off any of these creations? The Salt Creek tiger beetle is our local example of the massive wave of extinction now going on around the globe, all due to human activity and overpopulation.
3) Save it for education. Ever go on a field trip to a pond or a marsh in grade school or high school? Remember the thrill at seeing the wildlife there, from frogs and tadpoles to dragonflies to the teeming life found in a single drop of water when viewed under a microscope?
4) It’s about more than just a beetle. Saving the saline wetlands (or any ecosystem) benefits thousands of other animals, such as migrating ducks, geese, and shorebirds that use such critical habitat at various times of the year.
5) Small things lead to bigger ones. If people care enough to save something as seemingly trivial as a salt marsh and as tiny as a beetle, then they’ll surely care about the environmentally big things, like the destruction of ‘The Lungs of the World’, the Amazon rainforest. Cutting down rainforests leads to global warming. They’ll also think more about sustainable living, such as the kinds and amounts of chemicals they use on their lawns and pour down their drains, which end up being consumed by people downstream from their town.
6) As a famous biologist once noted, it is the last word in ignorance when a person asks ‘what good is it?’ We are not smart enough as a species to understand what parts are worth saving and what are not. Remember the story about a good tinker not throwing away parts until he fully understands what each does? We’re not even close to knowing how everything works, whether it’s the prairies, rainforest, oceans, the Arctic or even the last of the salt marshes in northern Lancaster County, Nebraska.
7) Let’s save endangered species simply because we care. The beetle is just one small part of the picture. The big issue is whether or not all of us care enough to preserve what we have left. Do we want to save species and habitats, or do we want to simply pave over and sterilize as much as we can in the name of economics? If you truly care about the environment, the last islands of natural habitat remaining are all precious, whether it’s a salt marsh, a virgin prairie, or a century-old cottonwood tree. To good stewards of the Earth, all are equally worth saving.
Add to Sartore’s points the fact that oil and gas extraction leads to more CO2, which leads to more global warming, which hurts Alaska earliest and hardest. Your motivation for your lawsuits isn’t in Alaska’s best interests, especially not in its middle-term or long-term interests. Sacrificing Beluga Whales and Polar Bears to allow us to further damage the fragile Alaska environment is counterproductive, ironic and stupid.
It’s also contrary to the Alaska Constitution, Article 8, Section 4:
Fish, forests, wildlife, grasslands, and all other replenishable resources belonging to the State shall be utilized, developed, and maintained on the sustained yield principle, subject to preferences among beneficial uses.
Fighting endangered species classifications to allow short term profit from oil and gas development is hardly managing for “sustained yield,” is it?
And if it’s inconvenient to have to protect these charismatic megafauna – critters that money-spending tourists travel thousands of miles to see – what will you do when the threatened critter is a tiny shrew, or an insect?
You see, Governor, you’re not smart enough – none of us is smart enough – to be able to understand how it all interconnects. And any time you find yourself allied with the oil industry on an issue involving the environment, you really need to look again.
/s/ Wickersham’s Conscience
WC was privileged to be in Kokhanok, Alaska earlier this week, for the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Kokhanok Wind Project. Kokhanok is on the southeastern shore of Lake Iliamna, in southwestern Alaska.
Getting anything there by land is ludicrously complex, with multiple barge transfers, truck hauling and barge landings. Fuel for electricity, by necessity, arrives via air, and is terribly expensive.
But what Kokhonak has in abundance is wind. After a long granting and permitting process, Kokhonak was able to install two Halus Power Systems remanufactured 90 kW wind turbines for a hybrid wind-diesel. When the wind blows, and it does most of the time, the wind turbines will supply all of the community’s electricity; if the wind dies down, batteries provide a 20 minute buffer, allowing diesel generators to come up without a break in electrical service.
The two wind turbines were dedicated with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, a quite good student poem and student essay, and mercifully brief speeches by elected officials. When fully operational, the system has the potential to save the community about $75,000 or more a year, depending on the cost of diesel delivered to Kakhonak.
It’s the kind of win-win deal that green projects need to be. It will result in less fossil being burned, reducing CO2 by a bit. And it should save money, too.
WC offers his congratulations to everyone involved. And thanks for inviting WC to attend.