Marilyn Heiman joined the Pew Environment Group in January 2009 as director of the U.S. Arctic Program.
How did you become interested in Alaska?
My advisor at the University of California at Berkeley recommended that I do an internship in Alaska as part of my last year of studies of political economy of natural resources. So I went up to Alaska to do a three-month internship on hazardous waste issues at the Alaska Center for the Environment. I ended up staying six months. I didn’t want to leave. I loved it so much—the people and the outdoors and the work. I went back to Berkeley, finished my degree, moved up to Alaska and stayed there for 18 years.
What was your involvement in the aftermath of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill of 1989?
I was working for the House Resources Committee of the Alaska Legislature. After the spill, I started working with staff to develop legislation. One of the bills we created set up a commission to investigate the causes of the oil spill and make recommendations on how to prevent a spill from occurring again. For the next year I worked as the lead natural resources aide on oil-spill legislation. Or, I should say, for the rest of my career.
I joined the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to help implement the laws we had written. Seven years after the spill, I worked for Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, getting tractor tugs (to escort tankers) stationed in Prince William Sound. When I worked for Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, I was the federal representative on the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, overseeing how the billion-dollar settlement would be spent to protect lands and create a research endowment.
The Exxon-Valdez oil spill led to prevention measures. What kind of measures do you hope to see come out of the Gulf of Mexico spill?
We need to create much stronger standards for spill prevention and response planning so we are prepared when a spill occurs and we have equipment in place to protect the near shore and shoreline. We also need to change the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which hasn’t been changed in over 30 years, to respect multiple uses of the ocean. We need to change how we determine if, where, when and how drilling should take place.
We also need to emphasize prevention and safety. We need to protect workers and the environment. We need redundant systems, more safety programs and better technology.
How do you deal with critics of offshore energy reform who say the economic recovery of the United States is more important than environmental conservation, especially in the Southeast where many jobs were lost and businesses crippled after the BP oil spill?
There has to be a balance. The benefits of drilling have to be weighed against the costs and impacts of an accident and against the other uses of the ocean. Yes, the oil industry is a big part of the Gulf economy. But the spill cost more than oil jobs. It damaged the fishing economy and the tourism economy. The administration was right to take a precautionary approach and make sure that standards were in place before allowing deepwater drilling to resume.
We need to apply this same precautionary approach in the Arctic Ocean. We need to make sure that we can respond to a spill. And there are some places that need to be put off limits because of their incredible ecological value, such as Alaska’s Bristol Bay.