Crude awakening: Fran Ulmer talks BP oil spill

Fran Ulmer talks about the BP oil spill at a UAF-sponsored panel. Photo by Jesse Hoff/Sun Star

By Jeremia Schrock

Sun Star Reporter

On May 22, President Obama established the seven-member National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. One of the members of that commission is former state legislator and current UAA chancellor Fran Ulmer. Ulmer, who served on the state’s Special Committee on the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Claims Settlement, was in Fairbanks last Thursday to hear testimony from scientists and concerned citizens about the recent spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

According to the commission’s website, the council members will be traveling across the United States gathering public and private testimony and “examining the relevant facts and circumstances concerning the root causes of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and developing options to guard against, and mitigate the impact of, any oil spills associated with offshore drilling in the future.”

In attendance were several members of the University of Alaska science community. Mike Castellini, Interim Dean of the UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, felt that the role of the commission is to gather information to prevent a spill of the Gulf’s magnitude from happening again. “Having information ahead of time is just as important as having it after the fact,” he said, emphasizing for the importance of oceanographic studies in cleaning up the Deepwater spill. “It’s very hard to describe the after if you don’t know what the before was like.”

The attention dedicated to holding a panel in Alaska, as well as of naming Ulmer to the commission, is largely because of Alaska’s own history of oil spills. According to Castellini, and acknowledged by Ulmer, Alaska is unique in America for it’s knowledge of oil spill recovery and cleanup. “People started asking questions about the Exxon Valdez oil spill to gauge how the Gulf event would progress,” Castellini said.

Tom Weingartner, a professor of physical oceanography at UAF and the recent winner of the 2010 Emil Usibelli Distinguished Research Award for his ability to, according to the Summer edition of the UAF Alumnus, “conduct solid research and make it accessible to the public,” was also in attendance. Weingartner, who has been studying the Gulf of Alaska since the 1980’s, stressed that the study of ocean currents remains critical in oil cleanups. During the Valdez spill, scientists (Weingartner among them) realized that while much of the oil spilled eventually settles to the bottom of the ocean, some of it is moved and dumped far from the original spill site. According to Weingartner, “what gets dumped in the south goes north eventually.”

David Christie, Director of the Alaska Sea Grant College Program, felt that it was crucial to understand the oil spill within the context of climate change. Christie, who collects soil baselines along Alaska’s coasts, agreed with Castellini that it remains important to understand how things were before the spill, how they are now, and how they will be.

Much of what was discussed at the listening session did not just concern the spill’s impact on the Gulf, but also the people who are affected. John Kelley, a professor emeritus of chemical oceanography at UAF, repeated a question he had once been asked by an Alaskan Native when faced with the prospect of drilling off of Kaktovik Island, located in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, “Is our food safe to eat?”

“How do you answer that and still have development?” Kelley asked. He continued by highlighting that drilling of any kind impacts animal habitats that in turn affect humans. “There is no such thing as zero risk,” Kelly said, stating that spills are not as simple as cleaning up the coasts and wildlife. Kelley felt that such events affect not only those who do the cleanup, but also those whose livelihoods are tied to either commercial fishing or subsistence living.

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