After decades of observing and participating in resource politics in Alaska, I fully understand that opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is looked upon as the “holy grail” of political accomplishments. I get that once obtained Alaska’s political leaders are loathed to not capitalize on this accomplishment. Understanding this dynamic, I am not surprised to read our congressional delegation’s high praises of the Trump administration’s latest action to approve an oil and gas leasing plan. Effusive support for the oil and gas industry I get, but looking through rose-colored glasses to paint development in the Arctic Refuge as the next “economic savor” for Alaska and the nation is harmfully misleading.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski said that opening the coastal plain, “is needed both now, as Alaskans navigate incredibly challenging times, and well into the future as we seek a lasting economic foundation for our state.” When it takes 10-15 years to actually develop and produce oil, how does this plan announcement help Alaskans get through the pandemic? Equally puzzling, is how does tying Alaska’s economic future to a highly volatile commodity create a lasting foundation? In the same congressional delegation press release, Congressman Don Young gushed, “Today (Aug. 17) is a great day, not only for the state of Alaska, but also for American energy independence.” How does more oil lead to energy independence when the world is moving in the opposite direction?
With the reality of climate change front and center, with 195 countries pledging to reduce fossil fuel emissions, with 42 countries putting a price on carbon, with 12 countries (includes China and Japan) and 20 major cities banning the future sales of passenger vehicles powered by an internal combustion engine, the world is steadily moving away from oil regardless of the Trump administration’s fixation with fossil fuels. For example, on the same day as our congressional delegation praised the big announcement of an approved plan for opening up the Arctic Refuge, the New York Times ran an article headlined, “Europe’s Big Oil Companies Are Turning Electric.” Bernard Looney, a 29-year BP veteran who recently became the oil company’s chief executive, says, “What the world wants from energy is changing, and so we need to change, quite frankly, what we offer the world.” BP is now “trying to position itself for an era when oil companies will rely much less on extracting natural resource from the earth than providing energy more akin to electric utilities than to oil drillers.”
A week before the Arctic Refuge announcement, the Washington Post featured a story about China’s $16 billion plan to beam Australia’s outback sun to Asia’s energy grid; in effect building the world’s largest solar farm. Whether it’s Europe, China or Britain major economies are not looking to make oil the foundation for their energy future. Instead, they are moving into renewable energy and the electrification of transport in a big way. And all this movement started well before the global plunge in oil prices as a result of the pandemic.
I understand the “holy grail” sense of accomplishment and how that drives praise for the Trump administration but that does not excuse our elected leaders from their responsibility to recognize the reality of a world changing to clean energy. And in this regard, they mislead us when they suggest that Arctic oil development can be the new energy frontier and/or the economic salvation for Alaska.
As reported by the Anchorage Daily News, Larry Persily, the former federal coordinator for Alaska gas line projects, said that with the growth of renewable energy and other factors, he doesn’t expect oil demand to rise significantly enough to support oil production in ANWR even for two decades. “If I have to bet, I’d bet against oil flowing from ANWR in the 2030s,” he said. “There are a lot of obstacles to overcome.”
I appreciate Mr. Persily’s candor. He helps deliver this key message to Alaska’s leaders: Global energy trends do not bode well for Arctic Refuge oil production. To that, I add Alaskans would be smart not to build Alaska’s economic future around a declining commodity that is also 15 years away. During this same time period, the world will move even further and more aggressively in putting a price on carbon emissions, growing the supply of renewable energy, electrifying the transport sector, improving battery storage, and in building smart grids. In essence, the world will be further beyond oil as the basis for a stable, sustainable future. Already, more Americans work in clean energy than as school teachers.
I hope that the “holy grail” shine on drilling in the Arctic Refuge will fade soon enough for our elected leaders to not only recognize the clean energy economy but create a path to include this fundamental development into Alaska’s economic future.
Kate Troll, a longtime Alaskan, has more than 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.
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