AD Main Menu

Use oil wealth for alternative energy

Alan Boraas

Gov. Sean Parnell has framed this year's statewide election as about lowering oil taxes to stimulate oil exploration and production to refill an emptying trans-Alaska pipeline. Lowering oil taxes has been an agenda for petroleum corporations doing business in Alaska since the 1980s, so it's not new.

What is new is enhanced oil taxation based on the Palin-era Alaska's Clear and Equitable Share (ACES) tax structure. Missing from the discussion is what the state should do with its large ACES oil revenue other than piddle it away on more Thanksgiving basketball tournaments of exhibition games or artificial turf on high school football fields.

On a recent flight into Anchorage I saw the blades of the Fire Island windmills slowly turning in majestic arcs transforming wind into electricity. Meanwhile Cook Inlet was on a flood tide, its circadian energy cycles offering themselves to be transformed onto the grid. And across the Inlet, Mount Spurr and its volcanic brothers to the south were begging to have their massive magmatic heat reservoirs converted to something useful for humans.

If Woody Guthrie were alive today he'd write the great Alaska song about wind, tidal and geothermal energy like he did for the hydroelectric projects on the Columbia River 70 years ago. "But while you're rambling, river, you can do some work for me."

Renewable energy is not some liberal, greenie pipedream, although it's often labeled as such by the power elite. A kilowatt is a kilowatt regardless of its source. But, as anthropologist Richard Adams has written, political power is shaped by the structure of a country's energy system. Renewable energy is a threat to Big Oil and its political associates because it has the potential to transform Alaska from a resource extraction state with neo-colonial control by multinational corporate interests to a small manufacturing and communications state diversifying our economy and elevating our sovereignty.

Once the initial pay-down of investment in geothermal, tidal and wind energy is made, the energy is free and all that is left is maintenance. Twenty-first century Alaska has the potential to be like 20th century Washington state. Seattle prospered because the Roosevelt-era dams of the Columbia created cheap energy to produce aluminum and Boeing became an industry giant.

The task we are facing is not to wring every last drop of oil out from every conceivable source using increasingly invasive and dangerous procedures like hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Our task is to convert oil wealth into renewable energy infrastructure using the vehicle of ACES taxation.

To get there our massive oil wealth needs to be spent on equally massive research and development on tidal and geothermal energy. Wind has been done elsewhere. The University of Alaska should be the international leader in geothermal and tidal research. The biggest building on the UAA campus should be the Institute for Geothermal and Tidal Energy and the professors and facilities should be the best in the world. Then apply the result to infrastructure.

ACES derived taxes should be spent subsidizing renewable energy projects just as the Fire Island Wind Farm was subsidized for CIRI.

There's no reason every Yukon River village shouldn't have a wind and river generation system. There's no reason every coastal community shouldn't have tidal power. And there's no reason Alaska-branded small manufacturing or Internet-based services can't spring up around the state if there is cheap energy to make them competitive.

But that agenda or one like it won't happen if Gov. Parnell and groups like Make Alaska Competitive Coalition (MACC) succeed in convincing the electorate that oil taxes should be cut, effectively transferring more of Alaska's oil wealth to the shareholders of the big three: Conoco Phillips, Exxon, and BP. (Conoco Phillips for one, currently makes $7 million per day in Alaska.)

In this fall's general election the bipartisan coalition of the Senate, which stood fast against legislation to severely reduce oil taxes, is being targeted.

Already two members of that coalition have been defeated in primaries: Tom Waggoner by Conoco Phillips manager Peter Micciche and Linda Menard by Mike Dunleavy.

Because of the outrageous Citizens United ruling, we will not know where funding to unseat coalition senators comes from. But you can bet there is big corporate money influencing the perception that low oil taxes are good for Alaska.

If you're in a district represented by a bipartisan coalition senator, and he or she is up for re-election, your vote will matter.

Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.