Ten minutes to 5 p.m. on a Wednesday, the lounge in the Student Union at UAA was full of unoccupied chairs as a handful of people awaited UAA Chancellor Fran Ulmer’s arrival. As time edged closer to the hour a handful of additional people filled the room.
Fran Ulmer invited Anchorage residents to the Student Union on Wednesday July 7 to hold a listening session for Gulf of Mexico oil spill recovery and response ideas. Ulmer was recently named one of seven members to serve on the newly formed national commission tasked with determining the causes of the oil spill and how to avoid similar disasters in the future.
A little over 30 people came to the session in which the chancellor did not answer questions, but instead simply listened to people’s ideas as how to approach the ongoing catastrophe. Speakers were initially limited to five minutes to offer information, but those that had more to say were given a second turn because of the small number of speakers.
The attendees of the listening session consisted of a small group concerned citizens with actual ideas to give the chancellor, a slightly larger group of reporters both independent of and affiliated with the university, and was rounded off by a few UAA students. There were no state legislators present.
Ideas expressed to Ulmer ranged from remaining skeptical of the news reports coming out of the Gulf to considering the harmful consequences of chemical dispersion, a non-mechanical method for removing oil from water currently being used to clean the spill.
The first person to speak before the chancellor was Dave Harbour. Harbour, a retired Alaska regulator and former member of the Natural Gas Committee of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), urged Ulmer to accrue evidence and recommend solutions grounded on evidence and not on emotional reactions.
Harbour emphasized the importance of weighing the economic effects of the recommendations created by the committee because “the oil and gas industry’s health signals the health of America and the economic survival of Alaska.”
The retired state regulator held the belief that making recommendations in the next six months that will lead to years of unnecessary regulation and cause delay of industry investment could be an improper reaction to the tragic events now unfolding. This will only further cripple the economy as it seeks recovery, according to Harbour.
“The more domestic energy we produce, the less we must import, the greater our national security, the more valued our currency and the more moderate the price of energy,” Harbour said.
John French, a retired University of Alaska Fairbanks aquatic toxicologist who sits on Seward’s Science Advisory Committee as well as the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Committee, spoke via video connection incoming from Seward. French informed Ulmer that the current methods being used to clean the spill are based on bad science.
“We’re not using the best science, we’re using the most popular science. (Clean-up operations must) stop ignoring the chronic effects on the ecosystem, such as an organism’s ability to live and reproduce, which can cause further environmental impacts,” French said. “We could be losing whole-year classes of certain fish.”
Offshore drilling should continue, according to Harbour. A main component of his argument is that eliminating the drilling would not eliminate the threat of future spills.
“If we do (stop offshore drilling) the effect is that tourism does OK, commercial fishing does OK, all ocean related activities do OK and there is no risk to them from oil, or at least oil rigs,” Harbour said. “The problem is there are much worst disasters that could be caused by oil tanker activity.”
After a couple more concerned citizens took the stand, a lone UAA student summoned the courage to voice their concerns to the chancellor. Katrielle Lauren spoke adamantly about the need to reduce our nation’s oil consumption and adopt renewable energy sources. She noted that Kodiak already uses solar and wind power throughout the entire year.
To Lauren, a drastic shift from our county’s current way of life is essential to avoiding catastrophic spills like Exxon-Valdez or Deepwater Horizon in the future.
“Alaska is going to be one of the hardest states in the country to apply these types of changes to. If the state were to put more money into researching alternative energy sources we could progress,” Lauren said. “I think if the price of oil were to go up or there was a lot less of it, communities would become stronger. People would actually know their neighbors. How cool would that be?”
Chancellor Ulmer sat quietly throughout the listening session, occasionally writing notes onto a notepad.
One Anchorage resident was brave enough to go ahead and ask a question, even though the group in attendance was instructed not to. Ulmer simply reiterated that she was still in the process of gathering information and did not consider it appropriate to answer questions just yet.
Since the listening session took place, however, Ulmer has begun working and traveling with the national committee. The chancellor has been traveling the Gulf Region with members of the committee holding public testimonies in Louisiana. In addition, the commissioners are touring different parts of the region examining the spill area and meeting with people that have been directly affected by the spill.
The listening session was recorded for podcast. It should be available on multiple U of A websites within the coming weeks.
Listening sessions are expected to be held at additional communities around the state in the near future.
“We hope to get around to other communities. Specifically those that were affected by the (Exxon Valdez) spill over 21 years ago, to gain perspectives from people who work in the industry and whose lives are impacted by the economy of oil,” Ulmer said. “Being an oil state makes us who we are, what are past has been and probably what our future will be.”