Did you ever get slapped for doing the right thing?
That’s how Cook Inletkeeper feels after the Alaska Oil & Gas Commission (AOGCC) recently announced its final rule on whether Alaskans should get public notice and an opportunity to comment on hydraulic fracking operations in their communities. And make no mistake, the AOGCC’s response is a sharp stick in the eye to any Alaska who values clean water, corporate accountability or government transparency.
In 2016, a small independent oil company, Bluecrest Energy, proposed to frack wells at the Cosmopolitan Unit on the Lower Kenai Peninsula, on the banks of Cook Inlet, next to the salmon-rich waters of Stariski Creek (Bluecrest’s business model rested on outsized handouts (subsidies) from the State of Alaska, but that’s another story). In the wake of Bluecrest’s fracking proposal, public concern ran high, and Alaskans were rightly pissed off they could get few details about the fracking operation.
Because Bluecrest’s fracking operations were to occur over a mile beneath the earth, and a couple miles offshore, it was virtually impossible to demonstrate the requisite “harm” for a legal challenge (unlike in many areas in the Lower 48, where fracking occurs in shallow shale formations in close proximity to drinking water sources).
So, in September 2016, Inletkeeper sought what it considered a middle ground, and it petitioned the Alaska Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (AOGCC) to amend its rules and make permits to conduct oil and gas hydraulic fracturing subject to public notice and comment rules. Easy right? Just let Alaskans see and comment on permits that allow large volumes of toxic chemicals to be injected into our lands and waters.
Well, no, not so easy.
On December 15, 2016, AOGCC held a public hearing on Inletkeeper’s proposal. In a truly bizarre display, then-AOGCC Chairwoman Cathy Foerster came unhinged, and resorted to profanity in dismissing Inletkeeper’s proposal. I have testified before countless committees and groups, and never before have I experienced the outright hostility that rained down from our state officials that day. All because we Alaskans had the audacity to ask for public notice and comment.
Undeterred, and unwilling to sink to the base level of debate encountered at the December 15 hearing, Inletkeeper wrote a follow-up letter to AOGCC on December 27, 2016, which included the names of over 440 Alaskans who supported more transparency in fracking operations, and which argued that public notice and comment were basic components woven into our state laws:
“As a threshold matter, it’s important to recognize the Alaska Legislature has wisely made it the policy of the state that “the people’s right to remain informed shall be protected so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created…” The Legislature has also found that “minimiz[ing] the adverse impact of [oil and gas] exploration, development, production, and transportation activity” is in the best interest of the state and its residents.” [citations omitted].
But AOGCC ignored these comments – and the voices of over 440 Alaskans – and issued a draft rule that contained so much vagueness and ambiguity to render it all but meaningless.
Inletkeeper continued to push back, and in testimony before the AOGCC on March 23, 2017, we wrote:
“[M]ost Alaskans don’t routinely wade into some of the state’s thornier environmental problems, and when AOGCC treats the public with scorn and contempt, it has a chilling effect on all public participation. And that runs directly contrary to Alaska’s Constitution, which recognizes Alaska residents as the owners of our natural resources, and our government agencies as trustees charged with protecting the public interest.”
We even wrote to Governor Walker, with the hope he would understand the basic right of Alaskans to fairness and transparency around fracking operations. But the die was cast. In the rules package AOGCC sent to the Governor and the Lieutenant Governor for final approval, AOGCC made it crystal clear it did not want to hear from pesky Alaskans in areas where it considers itself the unassailable expert, by specifically noting:
“We’ve rewritten [the proposed rule] in a way that contains none of [Cook Inletkeeper’s] proposed language.”
So there, take that, Alaskans! Don’t you dare make a good faith recommendation to allow Alaskans to engage in our government, or we’ll verbally abuse you, then completely ignore you!
Now, of course, AOGCC has come out with its final rule, and it’s truly laughable on its face. Here’s the complete text for changes to 20 AAC 25.280(f):
“The commission will post the application on its public Internet website. If the application contains confidential information the operator shall submit, for posting on the commission’s public Internet website, an additional copy of the application with all confidential information redacted.”
So, what’s wrong here? Well, everything. For example, AOGCC could post the fracking application anytime – even 10 years after the fracking operation has ended. It could post the application for one minute, then take it down. The application’s not posted on the state Public Notice web site, so you have to check the AOGCC every day to see what’s happening. AOGCC has no obligation to take or even listen to public comments. And industry alone gets to decide what the public can and cannot see in the application.
Boom! Score another one for big corporations and the government agencies that shield them from the nuisance of everyday Alaskans.
And make no mistake – this episode with AOGCC is not an outlier. No, today it is the norm. That’s why it’s no surprise most people are ticked-off at our government. From the national level on down, we’re digging ourselves deeper into debt our kids will pay, and we’re chewing through our planet as if no one will follow us.
So, we have two options. Sit idly by and let the government-corporate complex rob us of our future. Or fight back, and know the only way to change this broken system is to vote and engage and resist.
In the meantime, feel free to let the 3 commissioners who ignored hundreds of Alaskans’ fracking concerns know what they did was shameful:
Cathy Foerster, Commissioner
Dan Seamount, Commissioner
Hollis French, Chair, Commissioner