Beyond oil: Alaska’s first step is a sustainable budget

First in a series of three columns

First President Trump, then Sen. Dan Sullivan, and now Gov. Bill Walker have made statements about how opening the Arctic refuge is part of making America energy dominant. Regardless of where you fall on the ANWR debate, you should know that oil and gas is not the path to making America energy dominant. With renewables now having grid parity (this means that at the utility level it's cheaper to purchase solar or wind) in many parts of the U.S. and the world, the marketplace is rapidly shifting away from fossil fuels. As demonstrated by China, Germany, France and other countries abiding by the Paris Climate Accord, the path to energy dominance lies with the clean energy economy and away from fossil fuels.

There are five countries, including China and India, looking to ban the internal combustion engine by 2025, 2030 or 2040. What the Chinese did to fuel the boom in photovoltaics, they now want to do with electric vehicles. Knowing this, eight other countries have set sales targets for electric cars. More than 40 countries place a price on carbon. Latin America is experiencing a skyrocketing boom in solar power generation.

So if we really want America to be energy dominant, we would go where the rest of the world is going: Charting a path toward renewables, electrification of transport, and greater energy efficiencies.

[Alaska stewardship demands transition from fossil fuels]

While we will still need products like aviation fuel that renewables cannot replace, the future does not lie with more oil and gas. It lies with burning far, far less oil. In fact, the world has three times more fossil fuels in known reserves than we can possibly burn and stay below the two-degree threshold set in in the Paris Climate Accord. According to climatologists from around the world, exceeding a two-degree increase in global warming triggers irreversible climate calamity. Some climate scientist believes the mark is closer to a 1.5-degree increase.

"If we want to reach the two-degree limit in the most cost-effective manner, over 80 percent of current coal, half of gas, and one third of oil need to be classified as unburnable," said Christophe McGlade, a research associate at University College London's Institute for Sustainable Resources. "Absent some incredible breakthrough in mythical carbon-sucking unicorns, the numbers say we're done with the expansion of the fossil fuel industry," says the executive director of Oil Change International.


A Saudi Arabian oil minister, Sheikh Zaki Yamani, once said, "The Stone Age did not end for lack of stones, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil." He said this well before any awareness of climate change. The Oil Age is now giving way to the clean energy economy. Yet, our state leaders want to hitch Alaska's future to a dubious resurgence in oil.

As an Alaskan who arrived here at the start of the pipeline boom, I fully understand how much oil and gas has given Alaska and how much it has transformed our state. After funding our state government, building our roads, providing thousands of jobs, giving us an annual check it's hard to imagine Alaska beyond oil. But if we want a realistic future that accounts for climate change and competes with where the rest of the world is going, we can and must think beyond oil.

This is the first of three weekly columns dedicated toward this end. In this column I am setting the groundwork and context for possible success.

[Fossil fuels have a great future in Alaska, despite the wishes of some]

Solving the fiscal gap is the first and most fundamental step toward moving beyond our oil dependency. I must give credit to Gov. Walker as early on in his administration he demonstrated that this was achievable by convening the Building a Sustainable Future Forum in Fairbanks. Since then there have been many articles and analyses that clearly show that between all the spending cuts, using about a 5 percent of market value (POMV) draw from the Permanent Fund, and a mix of other modest taxes, the $3 billion fiscal gap goes away.

Solutions are not lacking. With political will a sustainable budget that is no longer dependent on the price of oil is achievable for Alaska's future. Ron Duncan, CEO of GCI, states that it is this lack of political cohesion more than the fiscal gap itself that is now hurting our economy.

Once the fiscal gap is solved, it becomes possible to take on the next steps in moving beyond oil. The next column will highlight what has changed in Alaska since the early pipeline days, 40 years ago. How have the other sectors of Alaska's economy fared? Are there now other economic drivers that we did not have before? The third and last column on this subject will look at how Alaska can build on strengths and enter the clean energy economy.

Please stay tuned and imagine along with me that Alaska is capable of moving beyond oil. While I may not have all the answers, I know which way the world is going and why.

Kate Troll is the author of "The Great Unconformity: Reflections on Hope in an Imperiled World." She has more than 22 years of experience in Alaska fisheries, coastal management and energy policy. She lives in Douglas. This column is the first in a series of three that explore Alaska's future beyond dependence on oil production.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Kate Troll

Kate Troll, a longtime Alaskan, has over 22 years experience in coastal management, fisheries and energy policy and is a former executive director for United Fishermen of Alaska and the Alaska Conservation Voters. She's been elected to local office twice, written two books and resides in Douglas.