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Oil has made us richer

  • Author: Charisse Millett
    | Opinion
  • Updated: August 30
  • Published August 30

The Kuukpik 5 rig at sunset, drilling the ConocoPhillips’ Putu well south of Nuiqsut in mid February 2018. (Judy Patrick / ConocoPhillips)

Alaska's wealth has and continues to come from our resources. Though the type of resource changed over the centuries, one commodity or another defined our land and built our peoples' ways of life. For the last half-century, oil was and continues to be the resource that drives our state's economy. I was therefore surprised when I read Charles Wohlforth's Aug. 9 piece that suggested we as Alaskans are no better off after the development of our oil reserves.

To agree with Mr. Wohlforth is to ignore our history as a state, our progress as a people and our economic innovation that makes modern life possible in the Last Frontier. Oil literally helped create the state of Alaska: The Swanson River discovery on the Kenai River in 1957 convinced the U.S. Congress that Alaskans had a resource that could support essential services. Lord knows that our population was too small as a sustainable tax base.

For most of the past 40 years, the vast majority of our state government budget funds came from oil revenues. Roads that carried our ambulances? Funded by oil. Seeding the Power Cost Equalization fund, making energy costs in rural Alaska more bearable? Funded by oil. The salaries and benefits of our state troopers, our wildlife managers and thousands of state workers? Funded by oil.

And of course, the many renewable energy projects in the capital budget to wean our communities off volatile oil prices came from developing Alaska's hydrocarbons. The energy efficiency programs from our state authorities like the Alaska Energy Authority and the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. were seeded with oil money. These are some of the far-thinking programs that planned for stretching a finite resource, and, in the case of our $65 billion Alaska Permanent Fund, creating a renewable one.

Did we, as a state and as lawmakers, make mistakes with our resource wealth over the decades? Of course. I regret voting for some projects that turned into boondoggles. We make mistakes and learn from them. When reading Mr. Wohlforth's piece, however, I get the feeling that only the mistakes are counted in his analysis. And that is worrying, because what is not counted, off the strict inflow of revenues to Alaska's government treasury, is even more profound thanks to oil.

I am an Alaska Native woman and a shareholder in one of the nine Alaska Native Corporations. These corporations, or ANCs, were specifically created for our First Peoples to develop their lands, economically benefit their people, and share in the bounty with others. That sharing, also called 7(i) after the section of federal law that created it, distributed almost $2 billion developed from oil and gas by the people of the North Slope to Alaska Natives in Hoonah, Bethel, Kotzebue and Tok.

I grew up knowing about the conditions in countless villages, with unsafe drinking water, cooking over animal and human waste, and living without electricity. Federal funding helped with eradicating the third-world conditions of our many fellow Alaskans. But here is a profound statistic no one manages to explain away: In the United States over the past 40 years, the regions with the single greatest growth in life expectancy came from Alaska's North Slope and Northwest Arctic. The defining events in that time in those regions were massive development projects, specifically oil and gas and mining.

I have no illusions that we can do better with the bounty God gave our land. We are charged to be stewards for today and future generations. We are imperfect and can improve on what we do with our resource wealth. But we owe it to our fellow Alaskans to be honest about the wealth that brought us our lifestyle we too often take for granted. Let's not cheapen our history to make a narrow point advocating a lifestyle we want for others in this state.

Charisse Millett (R-South Anchorage) is the Minority Leader of the Alaska House of Representatives. She has represented her community since 2009.

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