Ep. 37: Alaska: Open for Business

Unimak Island, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Kristine Sowl, USFWS

Unimak Island, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Kristine Sowl, USFWS

We've talked a lot on this podcast about the Trump administration's plans to open up America's public lands to drilling. Today, we zoom in on one state in particular, the state with the most of that public land of all of them. More than 60 percent of Alaska is owned by the federal government. That's 225 million acres; a plot of land bigger than Texas. So if any state is going to be impacted by environmental decisions made in Washington D.C., it's Alaska. On this episode, we talk about those decisions and their impacts on the 49th state with two reporters from Alaska Public Media: Elizabeth Harball, from the Energy Desk in Anchorage and Liz Ruskin, Washington D.C. correspondent.

You probably know a few things about Alaska. There's the Iditarod, polar bears and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). One of the big public environmental debates of this century has been whether to open ANWR up for oil drilling. And for decades, environmentalists won. But now that’s all changed. The long ANWR battle ended quietly, Ruskin explains, when an ANWR measure was included in the tax bill, signed by President Trump in December.

“We've been, as a nation, arguing about what to do with ANWR for more than 40 years. And during the G.W. Bush administration, when Alaska Senator Ted Stevens [was] at the height of his power, he couldn't get ANWR open. And I thought, 'well, that's it. America just is never going to go for this.' Well, lo and behold, late last year, Congress changed its mind and decided to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In retrospect, it was always the moderates in the Republican Party who prevented it from passing. Republicans have moved to the right, and I think that is what helped them pass it.”

So how is this issue playing out in Alaska? Lawmakers are thrilled. And so are most Alaskans, Harball explains.

“I think the first thing you realize when you land in Alaska is just how dependent the state is on the oil industry. Sixty-five percent of what the state legislature has to spend comes from oil revenues. It’s been such an incredible economic asset to the state for so many years...I didn't have to pay a state tax this year. In fact, I get a check in my from the revenues the state has gotten from the oil industry. The promise of new oil has been a dream of Alaska's leaders for quite some time. They are definitely hungry for more oil for a reason.”

Harball says when it comes to what is happening in Alaska's oil industry right now, the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska is really where all the action is -- more so than ANWR. There have been a number of oil discoveries on a scale that has the state plotting. And that’s causing controversy.

“Those discoveries are pushing the oil industry into the reserve in a way that just didn't happen in previous decades. Under the Obama administration, about half of the reserve had been placed off limits to protect sensitive lands that were considered critical habitat for migratory birds. The oil industry thinks, with good reason, that there's oil potential in a lot of those areas. So right now there's a push to open those lands up for more development. ConocoPhillips is already developing in the reserve. It’s this 'below the radar controversy' that's probably going to have a lot more near-term impact than anything that's going to happen in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”

The relationship between Alaskans and the federal government is unique among the states. No state is as dependent on federal policy than Alaska, and Alaskans see the federal government as the “big landlord,” explains Ruskin.

“Alaskans, in general, don't like being told what they can do on what they consider their lands, and what the rest of the country considers public lands...So in a lot of respects, [Alaskans] don't like the government telling them what to do. And everyone points out that Alaska gets a lot more in federal money than it pays in federal taxes. So Alaskans hate the federal government, but they sure do like the revenue.”

Alaska is also on the front lines of climate change. The state’s governor, Bill Walker, made a comment a few weeks ago that confused a lot of people. He said Alaska needs to pump more oil so that it can have money to deal with climate change. It doesn’t sound terribly logical, but Ruskin says it makes a certain amount of “Alaska logic.”

“There is kind of irony there, and that is not lost on Alaskans. But it costs a lot of money to deal with the effects of climate change in rural Alaskan villages that are in danger of storm surge and erosion. The prospect of moving those villages cost millions and millions of dollars. People do accept that the climate is changing because they see it with their own eyes. But I think there is a fair amount of resistance that humans are the primary driver of that or that there's anything that can be done to reverse that drive.”

Ruskin and Harball both say that the change in federal policies towards Alaska since President Trump took office has been mind-boggling.  Within a short period of time, Harball explains, a lot of the biggest environmental fights in Alaska reached major turning points.

“A couple of weeks ago, I had just been running around like a chicken with my head cut off covering decision after decision after big news story after a big news story. I don't know if it's entirely sunk in to me. I don't know if it's entirely sunk into Alaskans, but I think, on paper at least, when it comes to switching around policies that had been in place from the Obama administration, they've actually accomplished quite a lot of what they set out to do in Alaska.”

For the rest of America, Alaska is thought of as a vast wilderness that we haven't yet totally ruined. Harball says that the mystique is real.

“For all those people who want to keep Alaska in their minds, I encourage them to come up. It's better than what they're thinking it is. Being out in Alaska feels like you're in a different time. And there's so much of the state that roads don't reach, and you need to take a plane. It is a slice of America that there's not much of left. And we've got it. So both sides have arguments to make on this issue. And it's interesting to see it play out and play out so quickly nowadays.”

To put a little bit of Alaska perspective on it, Ruskin says you need to consider the resentment that some in the state feel.

“There are a lot of people in Alaska who feel like, oh great, you've already ruined your state’s wilderness, and you have your industrial complexes and all the jobs that come from that. And you want to deny us those features that make your lives more comfortable and more prosperous. The people who want to see more Arctic drilling -- they love the wilderness, too. They just think that an oil rig here or there is not gonna damage too much, and a little road through here won't hurt. And they feel like the industry that they want is compatible with preserving their wilderness values.”

>>Download this episode to hear more from Elizabeth Harball and Liz Ruskin. 

Mentioned in this episode:

Alaska National Wildlife Refuge

Midnight Oil Podcast

National Petroleum Reserve

Senator Lisa Murkowski


This episode was hosted by Reid Frazier. Trump on Earth is produced by The Allegheny Front, a Pittsburgh-based environmental reporting project, and Point Park University's Environmental Journalism program. 

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