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Econ 919 — Trading lease sale for art sale

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Kaitlin Vadla
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The federal government is inching toward an oil and gas lease sale in Cook Inlet, covering about one million acres from the southern end of Kalgin Island down to Augustine Island. 

On the Central Kenai Peninsula, there’s a different kind of sale in progress.

"I was talking with other fellow artists, all of whom live around Cook Inlet," said Cook Inletkeeper Regional Director Kaitlin Vadla. "And we were like, ‘What can we do about this?’ And so we had the idea to sort of symbolically cancel the lease sale in place of an art sale.”

Vadla and four other local artists are printing their art on cards and selling them in variety packs over the next week and a half to raise awareness about the pending sale.

She hopes art will engage more people in what can be a hard-to-follow public process.

“To be honest, it was kind of a response to the busyness and fullness of life," she said. "There’s so many things to pay attention to and I felt like this was a little bit in the weeds, you know?"

The oil and gas sale, Lease Sale 258, is a pending auction of over 200 tracts in Cook Inlet to oil and gas companies. 

The sale has been off and on. The Biden administration hit pause on the process earlier this year, part of a larger executive order aimed at fighting climate change.

But it resumed this summer when a Louisiana district court judge ordered programs to carry on in Cook Inlet and the Gulf of Mexico. The judge sided with Alaska and 12 other states that the Biden administration's decision was bad for economic development and bypassed public process.

Now, the feds are soliciting public comment on a draft environmental impact statement for the sale. Inletkeeper has been encouraging people to write in about the potential impacts of more oil and gas development on the inlet. 

Art and activism have long gone hand and hand on the peninsula. In recent years, local painters and Fisher Poets used art to draw attention to the proposed Pebble Mine plan in Southwest Alaska.

The five participating project in this art sale live on the Kenai Peninsula and have their own connections to Cook Inlet.

Like Valisa Higman. She’s a paper cut artist based out of Seldovia, where she’s also a member of the local oil spill response team. That team was born out of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill.

“Which is kind of my earliest memory," she said. "I believe I was about nine. So [it was] the first time anything outside of my immediate experience really impacted me in that way, because it seemed like it was such an imminent thing for all of us in Seldovia."

Higman said she’s concerned about how more oil and gas development in the inlet could impact wildlife.

Wildlife is the focus of her work — colorful cuts of paper showing a sea otter, wrapped in kelp, set against Mount Iliamna.

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Credit Valisa Higman
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Artist Valisa Higman sees sea otters often from her boat in Seldovia.

“We have a very healthy population of sea otters in Seldovia Bay and you get a lot of close interactions with them," she said. "I get to know them pretty well because I’m out on my row boat all the time. But it’s not just otters. I think about all the seabirds, and there’s so much wildlife in this area that’s so special and unique. And all of those animals would be impacted."

The other participating artists are Bonnie Bernard of Sterling, Amy Kruse of Kasilof and Liz Mering of Homer.

Kenai printer Hannah Parker is printing the cards, which will be sold online and at the Cook Inletkeeper Community Action Studio in Soldotna. Sales are submitted as donations to Inletkeeper.

Vadla said they’re timing the art sale with the public comment period for the oil and gas sale.

“The comment period for it ends Dec. 13 at 7:59 p.m.," she said. "So that is the exact time that we’re closing our art sale, to remind folks to submit a comment to BOEM if they haven’t already.”

A lease sale in Cook Inlet is not guaranteed. The federal bureau that oversees offshore leasing has canceled lease sales in the past due to lack of industry interest.

Vadla said she thinks it will be powerful for the agency to hear from locals.

“Local folks’ observations and knowledge of our home, this place, Cook Inlet, is really critical to get the whole picture of what would be impacted if there was a spill, if there was more development in Cook Inlet," she said.

Cook Inletkeeper will be selling prints and displaying some originals at its Community Action Studio on the Kenai Spur Highway. They’re also available on the nonprofit's site.

Sabine Poux is the news director at KDLL. Originally from New York, she's lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont, where she fell in love with local news. She covers all things central peninsula but is especially interested in stories related to energy and fishing. She'd love to hear your ideas at spoux@kdll.org.
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