For several months Alaskans have been bombarded with concerted, corporate-generated television, radio and print advertising campaigns advocating a roll-back of oil taxes, support for development of the Pebble mineral prospect, and the defeat of an initiative for renewal of the state coastal zone management program.
More recently, corporate money has begun to flow to candidates for election to the state Senate who would break the coalition there that has so far successfully resisted the roll-back of ACES.
The money supporting the development of Pebble comes ultimately from the owning corporations: London-based Anglo American and Canadian-based Northern Dynasty Minerals, Ltd., an arm of the global conglomerate Hunter Dickinson. Funding for the ACES roll-back comes primarily from the dominant oil companies operating in Alaska, ConocoPhillips, Exxon and BP, who also oppose the coastal zone management initiative.
As these global corporate giants seek to shape Alaska politics, a closer look at their nature provides insight into their motivation. The ultimate goal of corporations, their raison d'etre, is to generate profit for their shareholders; that is the fiduciary responsibility of their managers. The managers also have a legal responsibility to operate within the law, though the law can often be generously elastic.
On April 21, 2010, as workers on the Deepwater Horizon oil-drilling rig were completing an exploration well into the Macondo prospect, an offshore oil-and-gas drilling block in the Gulf of Mexico, the well erupted, the rig burned and sank, and the well poured an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf over nearly three months before it was capped and sealed. The event created the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. The national commission on the Gulf spill in its report to the president issued Jan. 11, 2011, wrote that the Deepwater accident was wholly avoidable, that it was the result of corporate irresponsibility regarding risk management.
The commissioners observed that the disaster necessitated "the oil and gas industry's reinvention: sweeping reforms that accomplish no less than a fundamental transformation of its safety culture."
That finding was particularly arresting when compared to the conclusions reached by the Alaska Oil Spill Commission which investigated the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989. The ASOC chair, Walt Parker, wrote that the Exxon spill was the result of "bad seamanship, bad management and bad luck," and could have been prevented "by an advanced oil transportation system designed to minimize human error." In fact, Parker wrote, a deeper responsibility lay in company policies that permitted "excessive work hours leading to officer and crew fatigue, route shortcuts to save time, and a general misunderstanding in the maritime industry of the overall advantages, disadvantages and effects of automation."
Neither the managers of the Deepwater project nor of Exxon's Alaska operations intended to endanger lives, property or the environment. They were highly competent, conscionable people who would not drive the family automobile without putting their four-year olds into proper car seats. But corporate organization gives people license to justify actions they would not undertake as individuals, legal and moral cover for imprudence. The justification is profit, the ultimate corporate responsibility.
In Alaska, Exxon, BP and Conoco Phillips, and Anglo American and Northern Dynasty, seek freedom, freedom from taxation and from environmental regulation, because both constrain their potential profitability. And the managers of those corporations seem willing to take risks with the environment and to undertake to shape Alaska's taxing policy in the interest of that freedom, risks and actions they might not endorse as individuals.
This is the same freedom the Alaska canned salmon industry demanded in the mid-1950s when they staunchly and stridently opposed Alaska statehood, freedom from taxation and from environmental regulation, with no obligation to Alaska's people. Former Alaska Gov. Ernest Gruening and Territorial Delegate Bob Bartlett called them out on that freedom, reminding them that freedom is not license to act irresponsibly and immorally, just as the Alaska oil spill and the Deepwater investigating commissioners identified and labeled modern corporate irresponsibility.
We should not be so beguiled by the idea of freedom in today's Alaska that we forget the nature and motivation of the corporations that seek to develop our resources and shape our politics.
Steve Haycox is professor of history emeritus at the University of Alaska Anchorage.