The wish in Alaska today is to punish the oil industry for the oil spill that blighted Prince William Sound.
It's an astounding change in attitude, considering the "Sierra Go Home" bumper stickers popular here not so long ago. The bumper stickers attacking the environmentally conscious Sierra Club left little doubt about the prevailing contempt for environmental fervor.In a state that was starved for economic development until the trans-Alaska pipeline came along, oil now employs about 7,800 people in Alaska and its taxes pay for 85 percent of the state's $2.3 billion annual budget.
It was hard to find anyone in state government saying anything bad about oil until the 10 million-gallon oil spill March 24 from the tanker Exxon Valdez.
"We're exposed politically right now because some citizens believe the oil industry must be punished," said William E. Wade Jr., president of Arco Alaska Inc., one of two major operators in the Prudhoe Bay oil field.
The other is British Petroleum Exploration Alaska Inc.
The two companies produce 2 million barrels of oil a day from Prudhoe Bay, 25 percent of the nation's total consumption.
The most immediate casualty of the oil spill was a proposal pending before Congress to open a portion of the 19 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska's North Slope for oil and gas exploration.
Roger Herrera, a British Petroleum executive consultant on the refuge issue, said:
"There's no doubt (the refuge) is on hold. The question is how long it remains on hold. It's a casualty of the oil spill, no question."
Alaskans take pride in their pristine wilderness, and the 49th state enjoys a mystique as the "Great Land," the last American frontier.
For those reasons, the oil spill was a blow whose depths are still being calculated.
"It is clear to me as a longtime resident of Alaska that people have been hurt by the oil spill," said Herrera. "They have reacted in a very hurt, angry and emotional fashion. How long that will last is anyone's guess."
Oil industry officials recognize this could mean unpleasant consequences, with Arctic National Wildlife Refuge just the beginning.
Although Alaska has a total population of 534,000, it has a strong voice in Congress.
"If (the wildlife refuge) is to be opened," said Herrera, "it must have support from the state of Alaska."
Only two weeks before the spill, an Arco public opinion poll showed that 83 percent of people polled statewide thought the oil and gas industry was good for the state.
About the same time, a proposal to increase oil industry taxes by $235 million a year appeared to be headed nowhere.
The bill involved changes in a so-called Economic Limit Factor on a 15 percent severance tax on Prudhoe Bay oil.
"The spill increases the chance of it passing now," said Arco's Wade, adding, "We'll lose some people who were supporters."
This includes Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper, a staunch oil industry advocate who now threatens to shut down the 800-mile Alaska oil pipeline.
Alaska Senate President Tim Kelly said the decision on Economic Limit Factor lies with the public, not state government. He noted his office is getting about 75 phone calls a day from Alaskans asking him to bring the issue to a vote.
The state also called off an oil and gas lease sale in the Cook Inlet, scheduled for June 27. This was disappointing to companies such as Arco, which had hoped to expand their search for oil in Alaska.
Future opportunities now are unclear.
Some observers see the spill as a temporary setback, while others see it as an event that will have lasting effects on the way the oil industry operates in Alaska.
The Resource Development Council for Alaska Inc., a pro-industry group, believes it will soon be business as usual.
"Once the dust settles, the state will realize it cannot mortally wound an industry that pays 85 percent of the state government paychecks," said Carl Portman, a spokesman for the council.
Since 1980, according to the council, Alaska has received more than $26 billion in taxes and royalties from oil production. This pays for schools, water and sewers, highways, air strips, port facilities and health care.
These benefits would disappear without oil funds, said Portman.
"It won't take long for Alaskans to realize that the economic well-being of Alaska and the oil industry are firmly tied together," he said. "The oil pipeline is the economic lifeline of Alaska, and has been for the past 10 years."
Environmentalists don't quite see it that way and are enjoying some new-found respectability since the oil spill.
"There are a lot more people now who believe that oil is not all motherhood and apple pie," said Denny Wilcher, president of the Alaska Conservation Foundation. "The spill and reaction to the spill is a watershed to provoke less public acceptance of oil companies and their demands for privileges."
Wilcher also detects a "decreasing incidence of vicious attacks on environmental groups by politicians" since the spill and a growth in the ranks of tough environmental groups compared with the "mild-mannered" kind.