It’s time for Alaska to reckon with the end of fossil-fuel era

By Ceal Smith - June 5, 2017
The trans-Alaska oil pipeline, seen here near Delta Junction in June 2014. (LOREN HOLMES / ADN archive 2014)
The trans-Alaska oil pipeline, seen here near Delta Junction in June 2014 (LOREN HOLMES / ADN archive 2014)

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s visit to Alaska and the filing of an undisclosed-applicant permit application to drill “in a giant area in the Susitna Basin mostly west of the Parks Highway near Talkeetna and Willow” is just the latest news sparking debate about Alaska’s energy future.

What is not news is that our Earth’s climate is rapidly warming — and in Alaska twice as fast as the global average. Or that science dictates that we must vastly curtail emission from the burning of fossil fuel by 2050 to avoid catastrophic warming (>1.5 degrees Celsius). Or that over 190 counties (essentially most of the world) have signed on to the Paris Agreement and are committed to sharp reductions in fossil fuel use.  None of this will change even if the new administration reneges on our Paris Agreement commitments.

[Interior secretary vows to reinvigorate Alaska oil industry]

Even if climate change weren’t biting us, Alaska would do well to acknowledge the abrupt shift in global energy markets that is signaling the end of the fossil-fuel era based solely on economics. According to the International Energy Agency, more than 50 percent of all new net electricity generation was from renewables in 2015, still a small number but growing exponentially and projected to reach saturation in the mid-2030s. Solar and wind are now cheaper and support more jobs than coal, gas and oil globally. According to experts, transportation will be largely electrified by 2030. Many towns and even countries have 100 percent renewable energy targets, including some major U.S. cities.

The best move Alaska could make would be to market its remaining low-carbon conventional gas reserves from Point Thomson at a premium to emerging low-carbon energy markets that pay carbon credits, like those in California and the European Union, and leave the rest in the ground. Developing new oil and gas fields, according to industry experts, requires “five to 10 years before oil flows with permitting requirements, limited work seasons and other challenges.” By the time oil from these wells reaches the market, renewables will be even more competitive.

[Anchorage in ‘conversations’ with other cities about committing to Paris climate change goals]

With good policy, wisdom and a fair-share production tax, low-carbon, conventional Point Thomson gas can underwrite our 10- to 20-year transition to a sustainable and diversified economy. But first we must see the large, bold writing on the wall; there will be little demand for fossil fuels after 2050.

Two key questions for Alaskans now are: (1) How many millions (or billions?) of our precious dollars will we have to throw at energy companies to develop new oil and gas fields in the Susitna Basin (or Cook Inlet, ANWR and the North Slope) given the very real and high probability that demand for oil and gas is going to evaporate by 2050, and (2) can we afford to take the risk?

Ceal Smith is research director for the Alaska Climate and Energy Action Network and chair of the Alaska Climate Caucus, a division of the Alaska Democratic Party.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Arctic Now, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary (at)