{span}The Kenai Peninsula Fair’s sign along the Sterling Highway in Ninilchik pays tribute to strong ties to the oil and gas industry. (Photo by McKibben Jackinsky){/span}

By McKibben Jackinsky

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a 7-part series about the challenges Alaskans face having the oil and gas industry as neighbors.

An outgoing, upbeat personality with a penchant for problem-solving served Lara Rogers-McGinnis for years as manager of Ninilchik’s Kenai Peninsula Fair. Lara took on the job in 2005, lived onsite with her two sons, Robert and Ronald, and invested innumerable hours to ensure the fair continued to attract more vendors and larger crowds.

She found uses for the fairgrounds resulting in additional revenue for the fair. The rodeo arena was used for riding workshops. The fairgrounds offered a central-peninsula rehearsal location for the Kenai Peninsula Orchestra. Holiday arts and craft events, community meetings and private gatherings kept the buildings occupied and finances in the black.

Lara also grew the list of sponsors, adding locally active oil and gas companies, including BP, ConocoPhillips and Hilcorp Alaska. In 2012, with Apache Corporation preparing to do seismic work in Cook Inlet, Lara signed a contract with SAExploration, Apache’s main contractor, for the fairgrounds to provide a helipad and space for crews to be fed. When Apache announced a “pause” after required permits weren’t granted, Hilcorp and its contractor Veritas filled the fair’s resulting financial gap by renting space.

So, in 2015, when I wanted to know how oil and gas were impacting residents of the Kenai Peninsula, Lara seemed the perfect source.

Unsurprisingly, she praised the industry, describing it as “kind” and “generous” and “so easy to work with.” Lara told me that when monthly heating oil bills reached a staggering $6,000, her salary went to help pay the bills, but when the fair switched to Enstar natural gas, the monthly bill plummeted to a manageable $900.

“That’s sustainability for us,” she said, referring not only to the fair’s ability to meet its financial responsibilities, but Lara’s ability to feed her sons.

There was another side to the story, however; a very personal side that erased Lara’s smile and filled her eyes with tears. It reached into her home and drove a dividing line between family members.

As a seventh-grader, Robert was assigned a research project, his topic was whether or not to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration. Robert explored what additional fossil fuel reserves would mean locally and globally, support from the mostly-Inupiat community of Kaktovik, and the Gwich’in people’s argument that opening ANWR would negatively impact the Porcupine Caribou Herd upon which the Gwich’in depend for food, clothing and tools. Believing arguments against opening ANWR was based on too many what-ifs, Robert concluded the refuge should be opened.

What Robert didn’t explore was a close-to-home example of a wildlife refuge where oil and gas development is allowed. The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge has a history of oil and gas operations dating back to 1957. Refuge biologist Lynda Kahn said that during that time there have been “hundreds of spills of various products including crude, formation-produced water, diesel fuel, methanol, glycol, therminol, solvents, anti-freeze, xylene, PCBs, and assorted other chemicals and compounds.”

The Government Accounting Office reported, as of 2003, oil and gas related facilities within the refuge had eliminated at least 524 acres of habitat, associated infrastructure had eliminated another 424 acres, and that the National Wildlife Refuge system lacked “sufficient guidance, resources, and training to properly manage and oversee oil and gas activities.”

Robert’s conclusion to open ANWR was devastating for Lara’s son Ronald, who was 20 at the time. Ronald is adopted and Gwich’in by birth.

“Ronald read the report and began to cry because he realized that his brother was supporting stripping his heritage,” said Lara. “It was pretty intense, but Robert stood by his report and his research.”

Being stripped of your heritage is an Old Testament punishment of immense proportions. A modern-day example comes from Sarah James, chair of the Gwich’in Steering Committee, in her defense of caribou living within ANWR.

“We always protect the caribou and depend on them for food and everything else. Meat, hides for clothing and boots, arts and crafts. To us, it’s human rights. To be who we are,” she said.

In spite of Ronald being Gwich’in and his fears that opening ANWR would destroy the Gwich’in way of life, Lara defended Robert’s conclusion, believing Alaska oil makes the world, “a better place,” “contributes to the wellbeing of everyone on the peninsula,” and that allows her believe “we can find a way to make the hearts of my sons meld for what’s best for our world.”

No longer managing the fair, Lara now runs her own consulting business, MUSE, and works with several fairs and nonprofits. Robert will soon turn 20 and is trying to figure out what life wants for him, according to his mother.

Of Ronald, Lara said he’s “making bad choices” and no longer part of her and Robert’s lives.

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