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Alaska Gov. Walker to Obama: Help us put more oil in the pipeline

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published August 25, 2015

President Barack Obama is visiting Alaska next week, where he's expected to argue climate change is an urgent problem that requires international action.

The message he'll hear from Gov. Bill Walker?

Walker wants the federal government to help Alaska access more fossil fuels — consumption of which is widely viewed as one of the primary drivers of climate change.

In a news conference Tuesday morning, Walker said he'd use a face-to-face meeting with Obama to highlight the state's need for more resource development and the "economic climate change" it's going through. That's a reference to the big budget deficit the oil-dependent state is facing following a drop in oil prices.

"We have an excellent pipeline in Alaska, except it is three-quarters empty," Walker said. "So I'll talk to him about what we need to do to put more oil in the pipeline."

Walker told reporters gathered in his 17th-floor office in downtown Anchorage his job is to deliver the "Alaskan message" to Obama, and he insisted the arguments being delivered by the two of them wouldn't necessarily conflict.

The state also should be developing renewable resources like hydroelectric and wind power, Walker said, but he added "it takes time to get there."

'Declaring war on Alaska's future'

Walker is a former oil and gas attorney who pitched his ideas about a new natural gas pipeline from the North Slope during his campaign for governor last year — a pipeline that he's asked Obama to publicly endorse on his trip to the state.

The governor describes a switch to natural gas supplies from diesel- and wood-heating systems as "the biggest thing we can do as far as emissions," and his administration participated in a coal industry lawsuit challenging the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed limits on carbon pollution from power plants.

He signed on to a press release earlier this year that said Obama and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell were "declaring war on Alaska's future" by asking Congress to declare a big portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, which would block oil and gas exploration.

Obama, meanwhile, is escalating his fight against climate change during his last two years in office. Alaska, which the White House terms "the frontlines of our fight against climate change," will be a backdrop for his arguments about the urgency of the problem in advance of international climate talks in Paris later this year.

Those opposing steps to limit the world's reliance on carbon are "stuck in the past," a White House deputy press secretary told reporters Tuesday.

"We've seen critics of our plans entrenched in an old energy, fossil-fuel economy, spending large sums of money trying to impede our progress," the press secretary, Eric Schultz, told reporters aboard Air Force One.

Read more coverage of President Obama's visit to Alaska

Asked Tuesday if he agreed with Obama's climate change initiatives like the proposed limits on carbon pollution from power plants, Walker responded: "I do agree with the president talking about oil being a bridge fuel."

"It is a bridge fuel," Walker added, referring to the idea that oil can "bridge" the gap as the world transitions to energy that's not derived from fossil fuels.

Alaska's conundrum

Walker's request that Obama help unlock more of the state's oil and gas "sounds crazy to me," said Kirby Spangler, an organizer with Alaska Rising Tide, one of several advocacy groups planning a climate change rally Monday in downtown Anchorage.

"Meanwhile, we have Alaska coastal villages washing into the sea because of climate change, and melting sea ice and melting permafrost," Spangler said in a phone interview. "The solution to this problem is not to produce more oil to keep the pipeline full. We've got to think of something else."

One of the purposes of the rally, Spangler said, is to remind Obama that not all Alaskans have the same views as the governor. But he acknowledged the state has a "conundrum" when it comes to its simultaneous vulnerability to climate change and its budget's dependence on oil production.

"We have more than one problem, and the solution to one of those problems exacerbates another. Ultimately the world is going to get serious about climate change and we're going to be putting strict limits on the amount of carbon that we burn, and that is a serious problem for the Alaska economy," Spangler said. He added: "If we do not take serious action on climate change, Alaska has a serious problem — it's just a different problem."

But Walker would be missing an opportunity if he didn't highlight the pipeline when Obama is in the state, said Kara Moriarty, the president and CEO of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, an industry trade group.

"We have an obligation to let him know that we are a resource rich state," she said in a phone interview.

Moriarty pointed to estimates by the federal Energy Information Administration projecting that 80 percent of the nation's energy consumption in 2040 will still come from coal, petroleum products, and natural gas.

"Why wouldn't you want to continue to responsibly develop those resources in Alaska?" Moriarty said. "We operate in the world of supply and demand, and as long as there is a demand for fossil fuels, then I think Alaska should be the leader in supplying those."

The oil and gas industry in the U.S. adheres to some of the toughest pollution standards in the world, she added — a point she said could be pressed with international officials in Anchorage attending a Department of State conference on the Arctic that coincides with Obama's visit.

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