Wanda Sue Page had a problem.
“My Honda is empty right now for a couple days,” said Page, 59, a member of the Tribal Council in Noatak, a community of just under 600 mostly Inupiaq residents midway between Kotzebue and Kivalina in the Northwest Arctic Borough.
Someone had siphoned off the last bit of gasoline in the four-wheeler she uses to get around town. That is more than an inconvenience in a community where the price of fuel hit $15.99 a gallon, several times the national average and dramatically more than even in neighboring communities. Stove oil costs the same. After a 6% sales tax, it adds up to $16.47 a gallon.
The prices for gasoline and stove oil in Noatak were already staggering because of longstanding issues with how the town imports its fuel, hovering for years around $9 or $10 a gallon. Several global factors are exacerbating the costs, and not just in Noatak. Other villages in the region are seeing upward of $10 and $12 a gallon for the first time. And the conditions that have caused Noatak’s gas prices to spike are soon going to hit more rural Alaska communities, according to energy experts, as global instability in energy markets and climate change continue.
The hefty fuel costs made for a difficult few months in Noatak, which had an exceptionally cold winter this year.
“I helped my mom all year with fuel, even (though) I’m not working myself,” Page said.
All over town, she said, people tried to stay warm when they did not have enough money for stove oil. Several times in the middle of the night she brought wood to her 96-year-old mother’s house. A nephew stayed with her when he had no fuel at all and couldn’t keep warm at his home. Some younger men collected cardboard from the store to burn.
“Lotta guys who will get wood and sell wood, which is a lot cheaper than buying stove oil,” Page said. It costs in the neighborhood of $180 for enough logs to heat a home for a little more than a week.
“It’s good wood from the country,” Page said.
But even to get out a ways and haul back logs, she said, you need a snowmachine, sled, chain saw and enough gas to power the whole operation.
The same is true for the small number of residents who occasionally travel 22 miles from the community along a snowmachine trail to the road that connects Red Dog Mine with its port terminal on the Chukchi Sea coast. The mine does limited sales of 55-gallon drums priced in line with their much less expensive bulk fuel order. But again, Page said, like paying for an Amazon Prime or Costco membership, you need to have some money in order to save some money, and many people have no choice but to spend $16 at the pump.
“They still buy it. We have to eat, we have to eat our foods from the land or the river,” Page said. “Lotta people struggle.”
‘It’s a double whammy for the villages’
One big reason Noatak’s fuel costs were already among the most expensive in the state is because all of it has to be flown in. By 1992, changes in the Noatak River made the channel depth too shallow for barge access, which is how almost all coastal and river communities in Western Alaska get fuel delivered during the brief windows in the ice-free season.
Now, Noatak is one of a few rural towns in Alaska that have to bring in all their fuel by plane instead of barge. Though the communities leapfrog each other for the most expensive fuel prices, the gallons sold for much of this winter for $15.99 at the Noatak store were very likely the highest in Alaska, according to data provided by the Alaska Housing Finance Corp.’s Research and Rural Development Department, which twice a year gathers local fuel prices from 300 communities across the state.
Residents got a slight break recently: Fuel prices went down to $12.99 late last week.
Energy costs are already much higher in rural Alaska than along the Railbelt, but when changes in river structure or coastlines affect the infrastructure for fuel delivery, prices skyrocket.
“It’s a natural process. Rivers in Alaska are pretty flat and tend to meander. There’s not a lot you can do,” said Ingemar Mathiasson, energy manager for the Northwest Arctic Borough. “If a village is stuck, it’s stuck.”
Mathiasson lives in Ambler, along the Kobuk River on the other side of the borough. In recent years, variable water levels in the river have meant barges cannot make their fuel deliveries in the summer, forcing Ambler and a neighboring community to fly in their fuel just like Noatak. In Ambler, a gallon of gasoline costs $12.36 a gallon.
According to Mathiasson, the channel recently shifted alongside the nearby town of Shungnak, ruining its barge access for the foreseeable future.
Toward the end of last year, storms across Western Alaska, outbreaks of COVID among airline staff, and logistical challenges arising from backlogged flights caused Noatak to scramble for an alternative air carrier as fuel supplies ran out. A smaller carrier than the normally used service made it work, but it made the price per gallon rise by $4. The recent decline reflects a return to deliveries by the town’s regular carrier.
Global oil prices had been rising before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the war has created chaos in international energy systems, spiking gas prices. Those costs are amplified further in rural Alaska because a lack of infrastructure like pipelines adds additional logistical steps that further swell the price.
“Every crisis out there in the world escalates the prices,” Mathiasson said. “The plane that brings the fuel in also runs on the same fuel. So the cost of moving the fuel, if the fuel doubles, it doubles the logistics. It’s a double whammy for the villages that have to move in fuel.”
Mathiasson expects a sustained conflict in Ukraine could contribute to oil reaching as high as $150 a barrel, something that village energy cooperatives and utility companies in Bush towns will be nervously watching as they plan their bulk fuel orders later this year.
The extra costs of high fuel
“It was pretty tough this winter,” said Noatak’s Hilda Booth, who saw people trying to heat their homes with paper, cardboard and even scrubby little willows from the tundra.
The town was already having issues with low levels in its water tank, but with gas and electric bills bulging, people cut back on things like heat trace systems along pipes, causing more bursts and freeze-ups. Frustrated by losing water service, Booth said some people who were able snowmachined to Kotzebue to wash laundry.
“Every home, those that are on low income, they were the ones that were hurting the most waiting for the state to send energy assistance, so that they can get some fuel. It wasn’t that much as before, but it helped out a little bit,” Booth said of financial aid from the state of Alaska.
Help has come from other entities, too. Maniilaq, the regional nonprofit in the Northwest Arctic, offered every family in Ambler $500 worth of gasoline or stove fuel, and another $300 that can go toward food.
“You can buy ammo for people that’s hunting for you,” said 84-year-old Don Williams from his home in Ambler. “I get that gas and then I save it for when my grandkids go hunting.”
As Williams chatted on a recent May afternoon, he said there were caribou in the area. Hunters who had cached gas, traded for it, or bit the bullet to pay $12 a gallon were on their way out into the country looking for them.
At his age, Williams has had to retire from many subsistence activities, and was looking forward to his wife’s return from a trip into Anchorage for a grandchild’s graduation.
“My grandson came in the other day with a big fat goose he had shot and cleaned, and boy did that look good,” Williams said. “So I got that goose sitting in the freezer waiting for them to come back.”
He said he worries that with prices the way they are, many young people won’t have gas money to put into their boat engines by the time the river opens back up and subsistence harvesting gets into full swing in late summer and fall.
“Got me one caribou, I was surviving off that,” said elder Minnie Wood, 63, further up the river in Kobuk. “My one, I shared with a few families for a meal. But yeah, they shared me also, ‘cause I can’t go out.”
Wood said energy assistance from the state helped, but came late for many in her town. Like most people in Kobuk, which has just a handful of paying jobs, she isn’t working and depends on an elder support network for her heating fuel.
“Hopefully the prices will come down,” Wood said.
There are very few options available that will bring down fuel costs in the short term for the communities acutely affected by them in the Northwest Arctic.
One that will make a dent are ongoing renewable projects going up, like a recently installed solar farm in Shungnak. In 2019, the borough’s Village Improvement Fund invested in heat pumps and solar panels in 70 homes in Ambler to help reduce fuel expenses. A solar array and battery system is planned to come online in Noatak in 2023, the bulk of which is supported through a federal grant, and which could save an estimated 18,840 gallons of diesel fuel a year.
According to Mathiasson, even though those projects will reduce the total energy loads in those communities by 10% to 30%, high fuel costs will remain a burden.
“We’re still gonna need the fuel for heating and transport,” Mathiasson said. “Until we can produce electricity lower than what we’re doing today, at a much higher scale than what we can do today, we’re still gonna need fuel for transport.”
The other option, for Noatak at least, is a road connecting the community to Delong Mountain Transportation System, the 52-mile network of all-weather roads used to move ore and supplies from Red Dog Mine to an export terminal on the Chukchi Sea coast. That would give the community easier access to mine’s cheaper fuel.
The borough and other stakeholders have experimented with a wintertime road as a way of opening a seasonal connection with fewer environmental impacts and regulatory red-tape, but it has so far been unsuccessful.
Most of the paths proposed for such a road would cross over a portion of the Cape Krusenstern National Monument, managed by the National Park Service.
“We’re really empathetic to their needs,” said Abby Wines, the interim superintendent of Western Arctic National Parklands, which includes the Krusenstern National Monument near Noatak. “At this point we don’t have a formal application from there.”
Any land transfer or easement, she cautioned, would take a while to evaluate.
“We’re talking with them and we’ll review a proposal when we get something,” Wines added.