Copper River Delta oil exploration drums up opposition

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A preliminary decision by the Alaska Division of Oil and Gas sets the stage for oil exploration to return to the first commercial oilfield in the state, but it's not a development welcomed with open arms in Cordova.

Cassandra Energy Corporation, based in Nikiski, has applied for a lease to explore oil and gas in Katalla and Controller Bays, an area about 40 miles east of Cordova.

In September, the Cordova City Council passed a resolution recommending "following the cautionary principle to protect its salmon economy by opposing issuance of a license of oil and gas exploration on or offshore of the eastern Copper River Delta."

The lease area is part of the Copper River district that brought a salmon harvest worth approximately $25 million during the 2019 season. It also partially overlaps with the state's Cooper River Delta Critical Habitat, designated as an area the Department of Fish and Game describes as a "critical stop for millions of migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway."

The area is home to Alaska's first commercial oilfield. According to the Department of Natural Resources, 28 oil wells were drilled in the Katalla oil field between 1902 and 1932. A refinery was completed in 1911 and operated until it burned in 1933 and was never rebuilt.

The concern that residents including commercial fisherman Dune Lankard have is that the risk is too high and the reward is too low.

"If an oil spill was ever to happen on the Copper River Delta, there is no oil spill contingency plan on the planet that could clean up that spill. Cassandra Oil's worst nightmare will be the winds, will be the tides, will be the storms, the waves. There's no way they could ever clean it up, and so the people who would be harmed the most are the fishermen and the stakeholders who live in this region," Lankard said.

According to the DNR preliminary written decision, the project would require a $1 million work commitment.

State records show that Cassandra Energy is owned by eight shareholders. Attempts to reach the company president, William H Stevens, were unsuccessful. The company's vice president, Paul Vass, has not returned phone calls requesting an interview.

The company is not an member of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, according to AOGA's external affairs manager.

In addition to the environmental risks opponents say the exploration poses to the fishing-based economy, oponents say the area is also culturally rich with dozens of Native place names.

"The Eyak, my people, have survived and thrived off the delta for the last 3,500 years since we migrated out of the interior of Alaska," Lankard said. "But there's all these small development enclaves that have these development dreams that want to destroy our way of life and replace it with money. And the thing is that money doesn't translate into dollars that help us. What helps us is being able to continue the subsistence lifestyle in one of the wildest places on Earth."

In the early 2000s, environmental groups filed suit against the US Forest Service after Cassandra was granted permission to drill. Lankard says fishermen and Alaska Natives are prepared to do what they must to stop the project.

"If they want to drill, then be ready for battle because this is our home. This is our way of life, and we're living proof of what can go wrong. Everyone has to remember that the Exxon Valdez happened in our backyard," Lankard said. "This is our front yard."

Comments on the DNR's Best Interest Finding will be taken until 5 p.m. Monday, Oct. 4. Comments must be in writing and can be sent via fax at 907-269-9838 or emailed to

To read the full preliminary decision, click here.

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