Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 2:58 PM on Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Respect them, inspect them

Cook Inlet oil patch deserves same protections at Prince William Sound

By LARRY SMITH

Oil scavengers are moving in. After the alpha predators of the oilfields consume what they want, here come the coyotes and the crows.

The killings made in the Cook Inlet fields by the oil heavyweights are history. The major companies like Unocal, Chevron, Arco, Marathon and Exxon have sold most of their interests in and around Cook Inlet to smaller operators. These hope to do well picking through the leavings.

We'll see. They are doing exploration where it has been done before. Plenty of small potential was not good enough for the big guys. Some of the little guys have tried and failed to make these pay.

The point is that we can't count on having the many good jobs we enjoyed in the oil patch, or the tax revenue. Income from Cook Inlet oil development supported many Alaska families and many programs. It was a very profitable enterprise for the owner companies.

When they began, public infrastructure was already in place: docks and harbors, airports and highways, freely provided by a new state anxious for development, trusting industry. The Inlet, however, was not so easy to work in, and there have been platform failures, tanker groundings, tank farm incidents and pollution by chemical plants and refineries.

One of the industry giants left behind a still active super-fund cleanup site north of Kenai. Although dismantling commitments were required when first they began producing 50 years ago, abandoned pipelines lie like spaghetti on the Inlet floor. Platforms out of production, but posing as still operational, rear out of the waters. The jobs promised for the dismantling phase never materialized.

Twenty years ago, when I chaired the Prevention, Response and Operations Committee for the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council, we compared Cook Inlet activity to Prince William Sound, Scotland, Norway and the world. Senior captains from the Alyeska sister facility at Sullom Voe, in Scotland, said nowhere else in the western world are facilities operated without full tug assist when transiting or docking. In Alaska, only Prince William Sound has a world-class spill prevention system.

Those who have spent careers working in the oil patch do excellent work keeping oil out of the water. But they can't do everything. They need backup from company executives, from inspectors, and from the chambers of commerce, commercial and sport fishing groups, Cook Inlet Keeper, and area environmental organizations.

Wouldn't you think that nobody would have a bigger interest in keeping oil out of our water than oil companies? Surely nobody would know better how to do it. Yet mud flows greater than Mount Saint Helen's have inundated the tank site four times in 40 years. We've experienced tankers ruptured, tankers aground, platforms destroyed by the tide (who knew about these darned high tides?) and by the Spit's sticky mud.

I asked an ARCO vice president why they didn't treat Cook Inlet the same way as Prince William Sound and the answer was we don't have to, "because the politics in Cook Inlet are different." The Coast Guard captain for Western Alaska told me the same thing. He had been a commander in Valdez; he said that his orders for Cook Inlet were very different.

For all of that — despite all of that — against the odds, our neighbors who work in the oil patch have prevented many a spill and kept the fields producing. Let's hope the new companies are smart enough to put local experienced hands to work, paying real Alaska wages, and getting a good, clean job done operating old wells, and exploring for new ones.

Longtime Homer resident Larry Smith has been involved with the Oil Reform Alliance, the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council, Cook Inlet Keeper and is now a co-chair for the Kachemak Resource Institute.

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