The past year saw increased attention paid to the Arctic from the international community and the state. Issues like climate change, an uptick in marine traffic and infrastructure concerns have driven many of the discussions among stakeholders so far this year.
Over the next few weeks, the Sounder will bring you conversations with state and regional leaders outlining their priorities for the Arctic in 2016. This week, we hear from Sen. Donny Olson, a Golovin Democrat who represents Senate District T, covering the North Slope Borough and Northwest Arctic Borough.
Q: What are your priorities for the Arctic for 2016?
A: Well, my priorities are to go ahead and make sure the financial issues are addressed so that the services provided by the state are impacted as little as possible as you deal with things like power cost equalization, public safety, education and the necessary things that are constitutionally mandated.
Q: For communities like Kivalina that are feeling the impacts of climate change and facing an uncertain future, what are some of your ideas to ensure the systems are in place to respond quickly, if needed?
A: Emergency evacuation-type plans have been put into place but when you're looking at the longer term, we're trying to go ahead and make sure that the school gets funded and we have a road up to the school site. That's what we're trying to put into place now for the immediate future, so that even if the storms aren't nearly as severe, we have the ability to make it so that people can have a transition up to that new site if that's where they decide to stay.
Q: With Shell pulling out of the Arctic, what are your thoughts on the future of potential oil and gas exploration in your region?
A: I think that as we look at what's gone on in the past, I feel that there's going to be some more drilling and exploration in the future. It's just that this is the wrong time to go ahead and start having those billion-dollar expenses when the price of oil is down low and it looks like natural gas is going to start being the desired fuel of the future for heating people's homes, providing electricity and the necessary utilities that we need in our residences as well as in industry.
Q: The Arctic waters are opening and there's a cruise ship expected later this summer. What are some ideas you have both for maritime safety and for maritime development?
A: Well, I think one of the things we need to do is build a deep-water port in the area and Nome has done a lot and is heading in that direction. I know Bering Strait has gone on with plans and has gotten permits to go head and develop places at Port Clarence. But, I think (we also need to) look at places like Cape Blossom and the infrastructure there that's necessary in order to realize that port.
Q: In terms of economic development on the ground in your region -- like extractive industries -- what are some potential opportunities you see coming up this year?
A: As we look at the places in the Ambler mining district, we start to see some of the mineral extraction potential that is out there and if people are in favor of putting a road in there, we should try and go ahead and make it so that's available. However, during these low budget times, it's going to be more and more difficult to try and find funding for as large a project as that.
Q: In terms of Internet access and connectivity of the region, what do you think still needs to be done in your district?
A: Internet is becoming more and more a basic part of our culture whether you live in urban or rural Alaska. There's been a push to try and get broadband into that area and that's starting to show itself especially in the schools and some of the educational aspects of society. There's also the fiber optic line with Quintillion that's coming down -- that's going to be more of a marine system -- if we can get that to go, that will come more from the private sector and that would give us an option to connect some of the communities on the coast to good Internet.
Q: The cost of fuel and energy is very high in the Arctic right now. What are some options for making it more affordable for people, in your opinion?
A: Right now, as you look at some of the electricity stuff, my predecessor was a key person to put in power cost equalization, and that, as far as helping people statewide, to be able to afford electricity and not go broke trying to pay for the electric lights in their house, that's something that we plan on pushing hard for and continuing to make sure that's an option. As we look at other types of energy assistance, we're looking at the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. We have that out there, so we're going to make sure that stays funded and that gets federal funds as well. It's almost entirely a federal program.
Q: What are some options you see for job stimulation and growth in your region?
A: We've always been encouraged by the fact that the Red Dog Mine has been instrumental in employing a large workforce up there and their emphasis on local hire has been very encouraging. But, as you look at some of the other smaller mom and pop operations, we would like to see that stimulated as well because they're working at the grass-roots level. So, that's where I see some of the strength coming from, where you can encourage entrepreneurs from the area to either sell some of the art that's produced out there or some of the other things that can be produced.
Q: You've been working on two separate bills this year: Senate Bill 159, on establishing an annual Indigenous Peoples Day, and Senate Bill 84, the Language Immersion Charter Schools and Teacher Certification Act. Why are these particular bills ones you are sponsoring? Why are they important to you?
A: In the Senate, there are only two of us that are Native senators. We are both long-term senators. Because of that, it's incumbent on us to be the people they would go to if the public wants us to go ahead and put forward bills like these. For the language immersion, we were able to put that forward two years ago when Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins from Sitka had a companion bill on the House side -- he was able to get it through -- and then we shepherded it through on the Senate side. That bill was signed into law by Gov. Sean Parnell. This is a continuation of that.
Q: There's been so much more attention being paid to the Arctic now both internationally and nationally and one of the things I keep hearing is that residents are concerned about keeping local and Native voices at the center of the conversation. What are your thoughts on that?
A: As we look at some of the changes that are going on and some of the potential changes and some of our abilities, (we can try) to make it so we have people that can afford to stay there -- that's what I plan on focusing on.
Q: What kinds of concerns and feedback have you been hearing from constituents so far this session?
A: We need to go ahead and solve our fiscal crisis that we're in. We have a deficit between $3.5 and $4 billion and the concern that people have is that they're going to try and fix that using only the Permanent Fund's earning reserve, which is a factor in deciding how much our Permanent Fund dividend is. When you look at some of the communities and especially the people that live in the communities where you have high unemployment and not as many economic options out there, the reality is that people are very dependent on the PFD either to buy things that they can't make for themselves or that they can't otherwise afford. When you think of things like gasoline for running their four-wheelers and snowmachines, and shells to go out hunting, those kinds of things that are necessary to carry on with the household, we see the PFD is one of the things that makes it so people can afford to live out there. Safeguarding that allows them to stay out there, otherwise, they have to migrate out and go to the city where life can sometimes be less than hospitable when you have a subsistence-type person without a job going in and trying to make a living for a family.
Q: What has your response been to those constituents? How do you respond to that concern?
A: I say that I'm interested in keeping the ideas you have but I'm also wanting them to know that everybody within the state of Alaska should be shouldering that burden and there should be more than just a PFD earnings reserve-type of solution to the deficit that we're in. I will go ahead, to the best of my ability, to try to protect the PFD for those people that are solely dependent on that out there.
Q: Is there anything else you'd like to add that I didn't ask you about?
A: As we talked about SB 159, that got its start by the governor naming Indigenous Peoples Day back in October, and so this is to make it more permanent than it would be otherwise.
This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.