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Sound economy and sustainable environment is not a contradiction

  • Author: Kate Troll
  • Updated: January 11
  • Published January 11

Sen. Dan Sullivan (Loren Holmes / ADN archive)

Here in Alaska the battle cry to spur the economy has always been "more resource development," which includes a chorus of deregulation and bashing environmental interests. If you're going to follow along with this song, it's important to note that "more resource development" generally means more extraction of nonrenewable resources, because deregulation is always the downbeat of promoting more oil and gas development, and more mining. After living in Alaska for 39 years, with more than 20 years in resource politics, I can hear this song in my sleep.

It is no surprise that Sen. Dan Sullivan is the latest Alaska politician to strike up the development band when the spotlight is on him. In a recent interview with The Alaska Journal of Commerce, Sullivan was asked what's on his list of 2017 to-dos. He said, "economy, economy, economy."

While this is an appropriate statement, it's how Sullivan sees the economy against the background of substantial progress, which is most disturbing. Sullivan was quick to critique Obama's domestic policies as "putting environmental interest groups ahead of the nation's economy." He says this without any supporting evidence. No matter. In Alaska, he doesn't need to back it up because we're all used to the broken record that economic development and environmental interests are opposed to each other. We sing this song even when there is ample evidence that a sound economy depends upon a sustainable, productive environment.

For an example of this synergistic connection, we need look no further than Alaska's largest private sector employer, commercial fishing and seafood processing. Right behind is the visitor industry that thrives on Alaska's unique environment. It is not an "either-or" situation. In fact, often jobs and environmental interests go hand in hand. Take for example how leadership on climate change has led to a boom in jobs related to the clean energy economy.

For Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and California, all part of the Pacific Coast Action Plan on Climate and Energy, the clean energy component of their economies is outpacing other sectors. In fact, an independent analysis by the Delphi Group found that from 2010 to 2014, the clean economy growth rate was more than twice as fast as the region's overall job growth.

Looking nationally we see the same trend. According to CNN Money the number of solar jobs in the U.S. has more than doubled in five years and now results in more people working in solar than at oil rigs and in gas fields. The solar industry added 35,000 jobs in 2015, up 20 percent from the previous year. By contrast, oil and gas firms slashed nearly 17,000 extraction jobs in 2015 as energy prices continue to plummet. The reason given for this decline in resource development jobs is the low price of oil, not environmental regulations or "putting environmental interest groups ahead of the economy."

Creating jobs in the clean energy economy is a small part of President Obama's job-creating legacy. According to CNN Money 15.1 million jobs were created under the Obama administration after digging out from the sharp job losses due to the Great Recession of 2008. President George W. Bush's administration by comparison oversaw the creation of 8.2 million jobs. Yet, this does not stop Sullivan from describing Obama's two-term presidency as "the lost decade of economic growth." Sullivan apparently is still in denial over the responsibility for the economic disaster and crushing loss of jobs that the Bush administration handed to the incoming President Obama in 2008-09.

According to Sullivan's assessment, Obama's record of job creation doesn't matter because he didn't dig us out fast enough. "This administration has been overseeing the weakest economic recovery, maybe in U.S. history, from a major recession," notes Sullivan. Although conservative economists like to point to a gross domestic product annual increase hovering at 2 percent, they are quick to overlook evidence that the long, slow recovery in the job market is now moving into a new phase: from job growth to wage growth. In addition to this good economic news, the stock market is booming with the Dow Jones industrial average hovering around a record high of 20,000. The bottom line is that while there is still room for improvement in our economy, Obama's record of bringing us through the Great Recession and creating millions more jobs than President Bush did, does not equate in the least to "the lost decade of economic growth."

How does this economic turnaround and job growth get overlooked? Just sing the song the resource development crowd likes to hear. Sullivan does, however, endorse the importance of building public infrastructure in spurring the economy along. In the Alaska Journal of Commerce interview reporter Elwood Brehmer notes that Sullivan said, "investing in infrastructure is one of the primary ways the country could get back to annual economic growth at least back to historical norms of nearly 4 percent." Strangely, the interview concludes without any mention that in December 2015, Obama signed a bipartisan bill to spend $305 billion on infrastructure. The Atlantic magazine reports that this is the largest transportation package in more than a decade.

Would this be the same lost decade of economic growth that Sullivan refers to? Is the song of bashing environmental regulation so strong that it not only prevents one from seeing real economic accomplishments but blinds them from recognizing solutions they themselves advocate? Perhaps it's time for a new song grounded in today's changing economy where we want and need both … a sound economy and a sustainable, productive environment.

Kate Troll has over 22 years' experience in fisheries, coastal management and energy policy. She has also served on the borough assemblies in both Juneau and Ketchikan. She lives in Juneau.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com.

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