Activists Rallying to Rob Alaskans of Their Livelihood

April 6, 2016 in Blog, Local Perspective

Activists gathered yesterday in Anchorage, Alaska, to protest future Arctic energy development, making the leap from protesting specific companies and specific lease sales to now demanding that the Obama Administration ban all offshore leasing, including in the Arctic – even though the oil and gas industry currently supports 90 percent of Alaska’s economy. Activist groups may have the luxury of flitting from issue to issue, but the reality that they seek to impose on Alaskans is one of enduring pain and hardship.

What Alaskans Think of Anti-Energy Activists

The Alaskans who live near oil and gas development, who rely on the jobs provided by the industry, and who depend on the energy produced in Alaska have a decidedly different opinion on the issue than the activists demanding an end to all offshore production. Bloomberg, in an article titled “Why Native Alaskans Support Shell’s Arctic Drilling,” explained:

“Activists trying to stop Shell’s offshore oil drilling in the U.S.’s Arctic Ocean region invoke the interests of native Alaskans. ‘These communities depend on this environment for food and resources and have stewarded it for centuries,’ Greenpeace says, as part of its ‘The People vs. Shell’ campaign—what the group describes as possibly ‘the most important fight in environmental history.’

A lot of native Alaskans, including many who live along the state’s North Slope, would prefer that Greenpeace mind its own business.”

In their own words, Alaskan locals revile activist efforts to fight climate change at the cost of “our communities, our State, and our country”:

“…[F]or those that wish to prevent Arctic development in the name [of] reversing global carbon dioxide levels or addressing global climate change, we note that, with or without Arctic development, planes will still fly, trains will still run, and oil and gas resources will continue to be developed around the world and in the Arctic. Shutting down United States’ Arctic oil and gas development will not alter the world’s course, but will only negatively impact those who depend on development for their continued survival: our communities, our State, and our country.”

Natives see this kind of activism as a “direct attack on the heart of our culture,” and they are quick to call the activists out for viewing the Arctic as a “fundraising vehicle with endless possibilities”:

“Outside environmental organizations look North and see opportunity. They view Alaska, particularly the Arctic, as a fundraising vehicle with endless possibilities. They see our region and envision their favorite renewable resource – money, and lots of it.
As Iñupiat, the environmentalists and their thinly disguised fundraising efforts are viewed as an attack on the heart of our culture, coming from people who know little about life in the Arctic.”

Indeed, Crawford Patkotak, chairman of the board for the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC), which represents 11,000 Inupiat shareholders, said the Natives’ “real concern” is being sacrificed in activist campaigns to “save the world”:

“We’re concerned that the environmentalists are trying to save the world at the expense of the Inupiat people of the Arctic Slope. … That’s our real concern.”

Even federal regulators in the Obama Administration have chimed in, with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell condemning the activists’ over-simplification of a “very complex situation”:

“I think it over-simplifies a very complex situation to suggest that one could simply cut off leasing or drilling on public lands and solve the issues of climate change.”

Oil and Gas Revenues Support Alaskan Livelihoods

Oil and gas revenues have provided many Alaskans with a pathway to modern life and access to basic services. Back in 1985, the New York Times described how the industry has supported Alaska’s state infrastructure:

“Since the Prudhoe Bay oil strike in 1968, Alaska has built an expensive program of state services and has put thousands of people on the state payroll, all financed by billions of dollars in taxes and royalties from the North Slope wells.

In these years of extraordinary wealth, Alaska has built schools, airstrips, docks and highways; lent millions of dollars to its residents at low interest, and even bought the Alaska Railroad from the Federal Government.”

Another article explained, in 1986, how “much of Alaska’s oil income has paid the bills”:

“Like one of those Third World oil exporters playing catch-up with the 20th century, much of Alaska’s oil income has paid the bills for such simple things as bringing flush toilets and running water to remote villages and building modern schools throughout the state. …

Oil money built sports arenas, olympic-size swimming pools, libraries and government buildings. Alaska used oil earnings to subsidize low-interest loans for houses, businesses, boats, mines and agricultural projects.”

Fast forward thirty years to present time, and oil and gas development is still the bread and butter of local economies, creating jobs – 11,000 in the North Slope Borough alone – supporting transportation and construction infrastructure that “would otherwise not exist,” providing revenues that fund basic services.

Activists Seek Replay of Difficult Times Past

Witnessing activist rallies like the one held yesterday, Alaskans don’t need much imagination to picture the world the activists are envisioning, because they had already lived through a version of it, albeit a milder – yet still agonizing – one.

In the late 1980s, a severe drop in oil prices and oil production “cut the underpinnings from the Alaska economy” as tax collections declined and Alaska’s oil income fell by two-thirds. State officials even considered bringing back the state income tax, which had been abolished “when oil wealth flooded the state treasury” in 1979. UPI captured the bleakness of those times this way:

“No one applauds the falling prices as a boon to the consumer. No one is rushing to the gasoline pump with a joyous new ‘fill ‘er up’ mentality. No one mentions that maybe the high cost of heating oil in the Arctic might come down.

All the talk is about what state services will have to be cut as the revenue that once flooded the state treasury slows to a relative trickle. Unemployment has reached 11.5 percent, compared to 7.3 percent nationally. Last year, 88 bankruptcy cases were filed in January and February. This year, there are 124 — a record for a two-month period.”

Three decades later – in 2016 – as oil production in the state falls to a quarter of its peak, Alaska finds itself in a troubling case of déjà vu:

“Drillers are pumping less, and at around $40 a barrel, the state is collecting less in taxes on the oil that is pumped, making for a state budget crater of crisis proportions.”

The drop in oil revenue has led to sharp cuts to state services:

“Because Alaska is so reliant on oil money, its income has fallen in concert with global oil prices that are down 57% from last year’s highs. State officials hadn’t anticipated that decline. They had to cut funding for schools, police and roads, cap health-care spending and dip into savings to close a deficit of more than $3 billion.”

As Alaskans scramble to find their way out of their state’s budget crisis, preparing themselves for the pain of the belt-tightening that is to come, it is all the more callous that activists should propose exacerbating the plight Alaskans already face by banning future Arctic oil and gas development.

As ASRC’s Richard Glenn has once told Congress,

“The local perspective should not be overlooked, dismissed or marginalized as the federal government develops resource development policy for the Arctic.”

When Alaskans insist that their voices be heard – and taken seriously – in the discussion about future Arctic energy development, it is because they know better than anyone, based on their past experiences, what their world would look like if development were scaled back. But overlooking, dismissing, and marginalizing the local perspective is exactly what the activists were doing at yesterday’s rally – and exactly what the Obama Administration should refrain from going forward.