More than 30 years after the devastating Exxon Valdez oil spill, many Alaskans are still haunted by the possibility of another such disaster. Some felt that those fears were about to be realized in 2020, when the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) began preparing to auction off development rights to a million acres of Cook Inlet, a proposal known as Lease Sale 258. Proponents argue that development would eventually buoy the region’s natural-gas supplies, but it would also bring new shipping traffic and an array of new platforms and pipelines to the inlet—along with their associated risks. The Seldovia Village Tribe, other Cook Inlet residents, and concerned people around the country submitted scathing critiques through the public-comment process. The probability that development would lead to another large spill was officially estimated to be one in five; critics argued that the risk was far higher.
In May, the Biden administration canceled the plan, citing a “lack of industry interest.” Though the administration did not explicitly acknowledge the public resistance, opponents felt vindicated. “There was a sense of hope,” says Marissa Wilson, the executive director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. “It was like, wow, maybe the public process is working.”
But last summer, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia insisted that the Inflation Reduction Act include subsidies for fossil-fuel companies and guarantee opportunities for new oil and gas development, including sales in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, Lease Sale 258 was resurrected by a bill intended to protect the climate—leaving Alaskans bracing for catastrophe…