Falling oil prices shouldn’t mean reduced environmental protections

From Executive Director Mark Swanson:

Mark Swanson
Mark Swanson

Oil prices have been falling for a long while now. Stock markets and energy sectors are volatile. This is good news or bad news depending on whether you are in the business of buying or selling crude oil, heating a home with expensive heating oil, or funding a government from revenue derived from the oil industry.

Our dependence on oil revenues and oil products, along with our vulnerability to oil spills and fossil fuel-related climate changes, place us on an increasingly unpredictable roller coaster. You may have a slightly different ride depending where in the train of cars you sit, but make no mistake, we are all on the same track, and live in the same environment.

A state full of resources like ours deserves the best protection

Sometimes, when the legislature, oil industry, regulatory agencies, and everyone else are so preoccupied with the money side of daily life, it is tough to remember we have other things going for us. Alaska’s natural environment is the source of our fishing and tourist industries and the envy of the rest of the world. Alaska has stunning scenery, abundant wildlife, natural resources, oil, gas, minerals and vast hydroelectric potential, and we think Prince William Sound is the crown jewel in a state full of environmental riches. This year, with low fuel prices, abundant fish returns, and perhaps the warmest, sunniest summer on record, more Alaskans and out-of-state visitors than ever travelled to our region to soak up the majesty of Alaska’s seaside.

As more of us come to appreciate just how special what we have is, unfortunately the state and industry have fewer dollars and staff resources to sustain the robust environmental protections that Alaskans have demanded and benefited from since the tragic Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. Both the oil industry and the regulatory agencies have reduced their headcount due to decreasing revenues and oil prices. This is understandable and necessary when balancing tight budgets. However, consequences of a major environmental accident have not decreased with the price of oil.

Try to find ways to save, safely

Recently, regulators have been seeking new ways to save. They are looking for ways to reduce the burden on their staff and on the oil industry to conduct spill response exercises. Recent news articles say that our state’s environmental regulatory agency declined to enforce critical air pollution regulations on cruise ships, while waiting for federal and international fuel quality measures to take effect. We must ensure that the state has the resources to enforce environmental protections that are already enshrined in law and regulation, as well as newly emerging environmental threats like invasive species. We have well-established vulnerabilities and a poorly resourced state response capability for invasives. Federal and international measures are aimed at preventing invasive species by requiring filtration and treatment of oil tanker ballast water, but these measures are slow to kick in.

Low oil prices have given us opportunity to travel to our coastal communities, get out on boats to experience all that coastal Alaska has to offer, and better understand what is at stake. Nobody wants an environmental disaster. Let’s keep our heads in the game and pull together to make sure these low oil prices do not become an excuse to reduce our protections, and perhaps increase the risk, for an accident with environmental damages none of us can afford.


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