CDFU pinpoints problems with GOA exploration project

With the deadline closing in for comment on potential oil and gas exploration along the Gulf of Alaska, Cordova District Fishermen United is telling the state of Alaska why such a project is just wrong for coastal communities.

“Granting exclusive license to Cassandra Energy Corp. for oil and gas exploration within this region is not in the best interest of the state and at minimum not in the best interest of adjacent communities, for which commercial fisheries are a mainstay of their coastal economies,” says Chelsea Haisman, executive director of CDFU, in a letter to acting director James Beckham of the Alaska Division of Oil and Gas.

“Issuing a license for this area would place unnecessary risk on small and primarily rural business owners and regional stakeholders that would bear the burden of loss in the event of an oil spill or blowout,” she said.

The state agency can’t say how many and who has commented at this time, according to Sean Clifton, policy and program specialist for the Division of Oil and Gas. As of Oct. 29, the agency had received a few comments, but usually most comments arrive on the last day, he said.

Once a final decision is announced on whether or not to grant the exploration license to Cassandra Energy Corp., the option to appeal that decision is open to anyone who has participated in the comment process during the initial solicitation in 2015 or during the preliminary decision comment period, Clifton said. Instructions for such an appeal will be laid out in the decision, he said. Such appeals must be made within 20 calendar days after the decision is issued.

Efforts to reach spokespersons for Cassandra Energy Corp. have been unsuccessful to date, and the state has declined to offer contact information to reach the firm.

CDFU said that mitigation measures outlined in the preliminary findings of the Division of Oil and Gas do not include measures for potential impacts to herring. Recent aerial surveys by Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists have documented increasing amounts of herring spawn within the license area and seismic exploration may impact this recovering species in a negative manner, said Chelsea Haisman, executive director of CDFU.

Adult salmon in saltwater within Controller Bay and the license area from May through November might also be impacted, Haisman said.

Juvenile salmon are present in freshwater within the license area year-round, as juvenile coho spend one to three years in freshwater prior to their migration out to sea. Wetland systems known to be migratory paths, as well as spawning habitat for multiple salmonid species may also be impacted, she said. Coho salmon embryos which develop during the winter and emerge in early spring as fry, are susceptible to seismic activity, and impacts could include environmental and economic damage, she said.

The license area itself is a dynamic region, subject to significant change from year to year, and frequent winter storms, high winds and shifting channels present challenges for any oil spill response activity. Fast moving current may lead to oil entrainment under boom, and responders may have difficulty keeping boom in place to protect sensitive habitat, she said.

CDFU also contends that none of the mitigation measures appropriately address potential impacts to commercial fisheries stakeholders, including some 537 commercial drift gillnet permit holders in the Bering River District.

Environmental impacts aside, oil and gas exploration activity and development in the Bering River District would limit the area available to commercial fishermen, Haisman said. Increased vessel traffic, drilling platforms, pipelines and associated tanker traffic directly within an active commercial fishery has the potential to displace current stakeholders from their historic fishing grounds, which have been sustainably fished commercially for well over 100 years, she said.

CDFU also reminded Beckham that the average 10-year exvessel value of the Copper River gillnet fishery alone is $22.2 million and that closure of the fishery, even short term, due to the presence of oil, would result in a significant economic loss to the community and overall economy of the state.

Risking the multi-million-dollar fishery resource in favor of a $1 million work agreement for oil and gas exploration would be a poor business decision, she said.