Climate plan or no, don’t expect Alaska to stop drilling for new oil and gas

OPINION: Alaska is working on a climate action plan. But don't expect the state to change course in the way that matters most.

By Dermot Cole - August 20, 2018
The trans-Alaska Pipeline runs near Toolik Lake in Alaska’s Arctic in the fall. (Kim Mincer / Bureau of Land Management)

Alaska is a leader in contributing to climate change. It is not about to become a leader in fighting climate change.

Yes, a 22-member group is close to finishing a 45-page action plan that deals with everything from carbon taxes to renewable energy and the need to reduce emissions.

But at the same time, the state and federal governments are working to accelerate the development in Alaska of fossil fuels, the primary driver climate change.

Fossil fuels are the dominant source of state revenue and state and federal officials, with backing from the business and political establishment, want to expand the search for oil and gas on Alaska’s North Slope.

A deputy commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources recently referred to potential oil lands as a “whole bunch of treasure chests of gold” and said the state is trying to promote more interest from oil companies.

Joe Balash, a former state natural resources commissioner who is now a key figure in the Department of the Interior, spoke recently in New Orleans to the Heartland Institute, a group that denies climate change — and laid out the Trump administration’s vision of opening as many lands as possible to oil development as soon as possible.

Balash referred to NEPA, the acronym for the National Environmental Policy Act, as a “four-letter word” and never mentioned the scientific connection between fossil fuels and a warming climate. To hear Balash tell it, the only use for public land is to turn it over to private companies in pursuit of “energy dominance,” the dumb slogan chanted by members of the Trump administration.

In Alaska, the Climate Action for Alaska Leadership Team may propose that a carbon tax or something similar be instituted, but there is no chance of it being enacted today.

While the proponents of a carbon tax are correct in saying that this would be a way of creating awareness about the cost of carbon dioxide emissions to the public, Alaska business and political leaders aren’t ready to accept the economic consequences.

“We all have to start paying for it,” said Chris Rose, one of the volunteer members drafting the climate action plan. “We can’t keep polluting for free.”

The best thing about the climate action plan in Alaska is that it is a way of re-starting the discussion, and getting more people to think about the fossil fuel dilemma.

Alaska and its leaders have yet to come to grips with the inherent contradiction of promoting fossil fuel development, while saying we must take action on climate change.

The climate group has an oil and gas advisory panel, chaired by a BP executive and the state oil and gas division director, but its efforts have been narrowly aimed at reducing carbon emissions from oil company facilities within Alaska, not with cutting exploration or production.

Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott is correct when he says that climate change is so real and so widespread in Alaska, which is warming twice as fast as other parts of the country, that it is impossible to ignore.

“Folks are realizing that it’s something we have to deal with,” Mallott told a New York Times reporter in May.

Alaska will deal with it in a limited way, but it will not back off on fossil fuels, the key driver in climate change.

The draft climate report mentions fossil fuels and petroleum sparingly.

In calling for a “climate resilient economy, characterized by less reliance on fossil fuels for energy,” it calls for the development of “local clean energy.”

It also says the state should help with worker training for those “displaced from fossil energy industries (and support industries) as a result of reduced global and local demand for Alaska’s non-renewable energy resources.”

An earlier draft of the climate change report said there is an “economic and ethical imperative” for the world to move away from fossil fuels.

“The state recognizes its obligation to encourage this transition and increase resilience in the face of climate change, while also maintaining Alaska’s economic viability. With a strategic, holistic approach, these aims are not in conflict.”

That statement is no longer in the draft report, an unspoken admission that these aims are in conflict and that a strategic, holistic approach has yet to be discovered.

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at [email protected].

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