New York Professor Thinks He Knows More About Alaska Than Alaskans

September 16, 2015 in Blog, Local Perspective

In a blog post titled “Arctic Oil Drilling: Deluding Communities About the Benefits of Resource Extraction,” Steven Cohen, Executive Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, may be the one deluding Huffington Post readers about Alaska. In the piece, Cohen asserts, “The problem with Alaska’s economic strategy is that it is based on the economic facts of the past rather than the projections of the future.” The problem with Cohen’s analysis is that it is based on the hypothetical ruminations rooted in ivory-tower paternalism rather than facts that are grounded in local knowledge, experience, and expertise.

The most salient takeaway from Cohen’s piece is his confession that he does not know much about the state – a fact made demonstrably clear from his assessment of Alaska’s economy strategy, but which did not stop him from lecturing Alaskans on what they should be doing differently. Cohen argues that “Alaska’s economy must diversify and get into sync with the changes now underway in the world economy.” But upon elaborating (“The state and its people need to develop their niche in the global economy”), he admits, “I would not pretend to know the state well enough to suggest what that might be [emphasis added].”

Nevertheless, Cohen advises Alaskans to look to New York City as a model, for “New York City has seen its manufacturing base in clothing, small electronics, printing and similar goods replaced by education, health care, public relations, media, software, consulting and hundreds of service specialties.” If Alaska fails to diversify its economy the way New York City did, Cohen warns, it will “eventually suffer the same fate” of “[t]he coal communities of West Virginia [that] are in the midst of a long-term decline.”

The crucial point that Cohen appears to be missing is that Alaska is neither New York City nor West Virginia, and the circumstances facing each place are literally thousands of miles apart.

One cannot help but wonder how Cohen would value policy advice about New York City from someone based in Anchorage. Since Cohen himself acknowledges that he is no expert, perhaps he should defer to Alaskans who are thoroughly knowledgeable about the issues at hand. And as they can readily attest, their collective survival depends heavily on the resource production that Cohen denounces (and cities like his depend upon):

Alaska Governor Bill Walker:

“From oil and gas development to fish caught in the ocean, we literally live off the resources…”

Richard Glenn, executive vice president for lands and natural resources for Arctic Slope Regional Corporation (ASRC), which is owned by and represents approximately 11,000 Iñupiaq shareholders:

“We’ve got tourism, but we can’t build a community around tourism. … Other than oil and gas, there’s really nothing else here. There’s no agriculture, no timber, no commercial fishing.”

Rex Rock, Sr., whaling captain and head of ASRC:

“Safe, responsible oil and gas development is the only industry that has remained long enough to foster improvements to our remote communities.”

Alaskan labor and business organizations:

“Alaska benefits from a diversified economy anchored in the responsible development of oil and natural gas resources, forestry, mining, fishing, and tourism, all of which successfully co-exist. Exploration and development of Alaska’s vast resources have always provided a firm foundation for the state’s economy and opportunities for sustained employment.”

The Alaskans’ support for oil and gas can be traced back to their long and fruitful history of partnering with the industry to facilitate development, which counters Cohen’s assertion that “[d]rilling in the artic is a short-term, shortsighted economic strategy.” After all, the first wells were drilled in Alaska in 1898, and wells began producing significant amounts of oil in 1911. Given Alaska’s wealth of resources – the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that the North Slope contains “more than a dozen of the 100 largest oil fields in the United States and several of the 100 largest natural gas fields” – it should come as no surprise that Alaskan oil and gas have been powering the rest of the country for decades now, as Alaskan labor and business organizations have written:

“From the earliest days of the Klondike Gold Rush, to safe and reliable energy production on the North Slope and in Cook Inlet today, Alaska’s resources have provided, and can continue to provide, opportunities for generations of Americans.”

The long history of oil and gas in Alaska also explains why many Alaskans, familiar with the issues accompanying development, believe it can be done safely and responsibly.

Richard Glenn of ASRC:

“We’ve looked at every step of the exploration, production and transportation possibilities. … We did our due diligence on this. … We convinced ourselves without any pie-in-the-sky or unrealistic optimism that it can be done. … We’re not shills for industry. … We don’t have an unrealistic picture of the risk or the reward of development. We’ve watched and been a part of development for 45 years already. So we know where the buckets of risk and opportunity are in any successful, environmentally responsible and culturally responsible oil development.”

Mr. Glenn has also testified before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Natural Resources to that effect:

“ASRC supports the responsible development of America’s Arctic oil and gas resources in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. The development of Arctic oil and gas resources provides our communities with the means to preserve our traditional way of life and culture while also allowing our residents to enjoy a greater quality of life. Put another way, our communities cannot survive without continued resource development in our region.”

Jacob Adams, Sr., Whaling Captain and chief administrative officer for the North Slope Borough has stated:

“We firmly believe that the oil and gas and our animals can live in harmony by ensuring that the oil and gas development is done in a manner that won’t affect the well-being of our subsistence resources.”

Department of State senior official:

“There is an equal number of people who believe that it has not been opened up enough. And I’m not talking about the oil companies; I’m talking about the citizens of Alaska, and in particular, Alaskan natives. The people of Alaska want sustainable development that also protects the environment.”

Crawford Patkotak, Chairman of the ASRC board:

“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.”

Furthermore, from providing jobs to supporting 90% of the state’s operating budget, oil and gas development has delivered significant, tangible benefits to Alaska and Alaskans. According to the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, more than one-third of Alaska’s jobs – about 110,000 jobs – are tied to the oil and gas industry. These jobs, as ASRC explained, provide “many contracting opportunities for the ASRC family of companies,” such as in “oil field developments, engineering, pipeline maintenance, and property leasing for exploration and development.”

ASRC’s Congressional testimony:

“With reduced onshore production, local governments may find it more difficult to build and repair critical infrastructure improvements and maintain important social, health and educational programs that many Lower 48 communities take for granted. We are talking about running water, flush toilets, reliable power, local landfills and K-12 education.”

Increased development of Alaska’s resources would go even farther in ensuring the state’s fiscal health. Developing Alaska’s offshore continental shelf areas is estimated to generate, over a 50-year period, $15 billion in potential revenues to the State of Alaska and $4 billion in property taxes to local governments (in 2007 dollars).

Perhaps the real threat Alaskans face is not resource development, but rather the intrusion of those who are purportedly championing their cause but are in fact doing the very opposite:

ASRC’s Congressional testimony:

“Finally, for 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.”

Ironically, the oil and gas industry exemplifies the “high value-added part of the economy [that] is built on ideas, information and technology” that Cohen argues should replace fossil fuels. Cohen offers, “portable movie studios provide an example of the agility and flexibility needed to compete in the global economy.” By contrast, advances in technology, such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, have unlocked heretofore inaccessible shale resources, making the U.S. the top producer of oil and gas in the world, ushering in a new era of energy abundance, transforming America’s energy landscape, upending global energy markets, changing the economics of oil, stimulating broader economic growth, and even heralding a domestic manufacturing resurgence in the process. The contributions of portable movie studios seem meager in comparison.

Using one’s academic credentials as a license to wax poetic about topics one knows precious little about – while disregarding the views of local experts – makes a mockery of academia and the very mission of education. ASRC’s Tara Sweeney, when explaining that ending Arctic oil development would cripple Native Alaskan community infrastructure and schools, said, “We’re not going to shut the lights off in our communities for someone in New Jersey to have peace of mind.” New Yorkers, pay heed.