Ted Danson testifies in Alaska at drilling hearing

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Ted Danson’s day job is performing with Drew Barrymore in “Everybody Loves Whales,” a movie now being filmed in Alaska.

On Tuesday night, he switched from acting to environmental advocacy and urged a timeout for exploratory petroleum drilling in Alaska’s Arctic Ocean.

“If you’re going to drill in environmentally sensitive areas, make sure you’ve got it right. And we haven’t gotten it right yet,” he said.

A federal judge ordered the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to expand its environmental review of a 2008 lease sale in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northwest coast, a body of water shared with Russia that’s the home to bowhead whales, polar bears, walrus and other marine mammals.

The federal agency that preceded the bureau, the Minerals Management Service, issued 487 leases in the Chukchi after receiving bids totaling $2.7 billion. A subsidiary of Shell Oil accounted for most of the bidding and the company hoped to drill exploratory wells last summer.

Danson, a board member of the ocean advocacy group Oceana, testified that the agency’s revised environmental plan continues to fall short.

“We feel that the draft that has come out is actually basically saying, ‘Yes, we know we don’t know this certain amount of science, but it’s OK that we don’t know that science to go ahead and start drilling,'” he said. “We disagree. We feel that that would be a mistake.”

Environmental and Alaska Native groups bitterly oppose drilling in Arctic waters because of the effects on migratory whales and other wildlife and the potential for a major spill.

The region lacks a deep-water port and other infrastructure that could be useful for cleanup of a major spill.

The Arctic coastline is notorious for bad weather, and darkness and extreme cold engulf it much of the year. Drilling critics contend that not enough is known about ocean currents, navigation hazards and habits of marine wildlife, and that the industry has not demonstrated it can clean up a spill in broken ice.

Danson was one of 78 people who signed up to testify. The agency heard repeated testimony from representatives of Alaska businesses dependent on the oil industry who said millions of dollars have already been spent on studies that supported offshore Arctic drilling. Both Alaska and the country need additional supplies of domestic oil, they said.

Shell contends there is little chance for a blowout in the relatively shallow Arctic outer continental shelf. The company says a spill could be contained and cleaned up by response vessels the company would stage with a drilling rig.

Danson spoke five days after a trip to the Inupiat Eskimo community of Barrow, America’s northernmost city, where he had a discussion with Edward Itta, mayor of the North Slope Borough.

“The people he represents have been lifted up economically from oil money into a place where they can live in a much more sustainable way,” he said. “And at the same time, their spiritual and cultural life depends on whaling, bowhead whale, and they feel that may or may not be in jeopardy from this drilling.”

The testimony of drilling advocates struck a chord with him, he said.

“The only thing that’s hard in this conversation for me is jobs,” he said. “It’s really hard to argue in this economy that people don’t need their jobs.”

But in an era when people don’t trust oil companies or their regulators, and when there has been a huge accident such as the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, the federal government must ensure that scientific research is done right, Danson said. Oceana advocates a five-year pause.

“Our suggestion is to stop this draft, do the real science, the base science, and it would take maybe four or five years to do that, $20 million per year, would be well worth that effort.”