Monday, November 10, 2008

Idea of road through refuge pits residents against environmentalists, who suspect hand of Big Oil

A plan to build a 20-mile road, half of it in the wilderness of the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge on the Alaska Peninsula, has pitted area residents who want better access to an airport here against environmentalists, "who suspect, without concrete evidence, that the oil industry is secretly behind the effort," write Matthew Mosk and Mark Kaufman of The Washington Post. (Post map)

Local residents began calling for the road more than a decade ago as a way to travel over land to the Cold Bay airport, the only one in the region capable of airlifting sick residents to hospitals during frequent periods of inclement weather. "The villagers hired high-powered advocates to help them, dipping into a $2.4 million budget over the past two years to spend $145,000 on lobbying in Washington and $136,000 more to fly officials there to push the issue, city records show," write Mosk and Kaufman. "The borough spent an additional $72,000 during that period for lobbying in the state capital." To critics of the project, these sums seem substantial for a village of 3,000 residents, so they suspect some of the money comes from oil companies interested in drilling in the area.

The villagers have also hired lobbyist with ties to oil companies "Their emissary in Alaska was Mark Hickey, a former state transportation commissioner who lobbies for municipal governments and also represents Harbor Enterprise, an oil and gas marketing and distribution company," add Mosk and Kaufman. The villagers had a DVD made featuring a 70-year-old King Cove man recounting how he nearly died because he had to travel to a hospital by boat to be treated for pneumonia.

Shell Oil Co. has been involved at a local level in King Cove. "Among other civic involvements, the company designed a second- and third-grade curriculum to teach students about oil and gas development," the Post reports. Shell cited the creation of a trained work force as the reason behind the program, adding that they hoped to be working in the area in 10 to 15 years. The proposed road would initially be closed to commercial traffic, but many opposed to the project fear that that ban would be temporary, allowing the road to be used to transport machinery and workers from King Cove to Cold Bay for oil and gas drilling. It would be the first public road in a highly protected federal wildlife refuge.

Kristine Sowl, a staff biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Cold Bay, told Mosk and Kaufman,"Over the years, the agency has consistently declared any such road and its construction through the refuge to be incompatible and extremely damaging and there has been no change in those findings to this day." (Read more)

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