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Restricting Energy Development in Alaska: A Loss for Alaska’s People and A Hypocritical Defense of Wildlife

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Dear President Obama,

Your decision to give the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) wilderness status and to ban future oil and gas drilling on the Arctic Coastal plain represents the death knell of a coherent national petroleum policy, especially when combined with limitations on new leases in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Arctic Coastal plain alone contains an estimated 10.4 billion barrels of oil. These actions, combined with your hesitation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline (despite five environmental assessments which conclude that the pipeline can be built and operated safely) make your so-called “all of the above energy policy” a mockery of policy incoherence.

The lack of coherent policy and contradiction continues in other areas as well. While your supporters will argue that the simultaneous opening up of areas from the Chesapeake to North Florida and parts of the western Gulf Coast shows that you are willing to allow exploration in areas deemed less environmentally sensitive, one has to query both your seeming lack of concern for East Coast bird and marine sanctuaries, not to mention possible despoliation resulting from the potential for oil spills along the East Coast. Is protection of the endangered loggerhead sea turtle and the ACE Basin along the East Coast really of lesser concern than protection of the walrus and polar bear in the Arctic? Furthermore, nearly one-third of all seafood production in the continental United States is harvested in the Gulf. The argument that Alaska is to be protected because of its “special” environmental concerns seems hypocritical given the vital importance of the petroleum industry to the Alaskan economy. Meanwhile the East Coast does not need the petroleum industry to survive or as a means of large scale employment like Alaska does.

Before President Clinton placed the Arctic Coastal plain off limits for drilling, the Department of the Interior conducted a study on the impact oil and gas drilling might have on the polar bear habitat in the region, an area equal in size to Rhode Island. The study found that there were less than four established polar bear dens in the whole region, suggesting the possibility, however remote, in the minds of Clinton administration officials, that Arctic wildlife and marine life can co-exist with development, as they have done at Prudhoe Bay since oil production commenced in 1978. Likewise, it is useful to remember that when the Trans-Alaska Pipeline system (TAPS) was built, many in the environmental community predicted a disaster for the migration of caribou herds across northern Alaska. Today, the caribou population is in fact larger than at the time the pipeline was built.

Mr. President, your actions would be hard enough to understand if they only centered on diverse points of view about the nature of fossil fuel usage and how fast we can transition to a non-fossil fuel era—not only in the United States but also around the globe. While your administration may see the closing of Alaska and the opening of the East Coast to oil and gas drilling as giving each side a bit of what they want, you fail to see that these are not juggling the interests of two constituencies. Rather, these are localized issues with high stakes, especially for the people of Alaska who often do not have the diverse employment opportunities found along the East Coast. In Alaska, the economic vitality of the state is deeply tied to resource extraction. The royalties and taxes from those industries fund the state’s public education and health care systems, while also providing Alaskans with jobs as ship captains, oil field workers, fishery workers, etc.

Further, your actions on ANWAR and the Coastal Plain are seen as likely to end any hope of revitalizing the TAPS flow rate and the resulting enhanced revenues generated through new sources of production. Mr. President, for thousands of years native Inuit populations have inhabited regions bordering the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, living on local fish and wildlife and native flora and fauna. With the discovery of oil and the inflow of oil-related money, the Inuit people have seen vast improvements in their health, life expectancy, education and financial security. Now with Prudhoe Bay production in serious decline and TAPS running at less than 600,000 mbd (down from 2 mmbd), the benefits that have accrued to them—as well as all Alaskan citizens through the royalty and taxes placed in Alaska’s Permanent Fund—are in danger of being lost, casting Alaska once again into the status of a subjugated territory of the lower 48 states.

Mr. President, in May, the United States will take over chairmanship of the Arctic Council, a pan-Arctic organization designed to address Arctic issues in a multilateral context. Alaska is our only state in the Arctic, and because of Alaska we are an Arctic nation. It also is the only place where we share a border with Russia providing an opportunity for collaboration rather than the confrontation we see today. It seems strange that, at a time when we will be in a position to lead the Arctic nations on mitigating the threats posed to the region by climate change and in insuring that the opportunities for resource development are done using environmentally-sound practices through effective regulation and oversight that we choose now to close off this great resource rather than allowing their benefits to flow to the local Alaskan population while providing resources for the nation as well as the rest of the world.

In a few short weeks, the National Petroleum Council, after months of painstaking work, will submit a report on the future direction of the nation’s Arctic policy and on offshore oil and gas development in Alaska. This report was done at the request of Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz. As a member of the deliberative study group that consulted on the report, I hope you will examine its findings closely and hopefully will reconsider the opportunities afforded by prudent development of this vast resource in a way that recognizes the interests of Alaskans as well as the broader interests of our nation.

Authors

The findings, interpretations and conclusions posted on Brookings.edu are solely those of the authors and not of The Brookings Institution, its officers, staff, board, funders, or organizations with which they may have a relationship.

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