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Alaska’s plan to pay for climate change: drill for more oil

State officials want to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling to close a budget deficit.

Soil erosion from melting permafrost has toppled homes in Shishmaref, Alaska.
Shishmaref Erosion and Relocation Coalition
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

With the ground melting beneath them from global warming, Alaskan lawmakers are calling for more oil drilling to deal with the problem.

The state is warming nearly twice as fast as the rest of the United States. The permafrost, a layer of frozen soil beneath 85 percent of it, is thawing, causing homes to sink and roads to buckle.

Barring a significant reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions, Alaska’s infrastructure will suffer up to $5.5 billion in damages by the end of the century, one study found.

The trouble is Alaska is straining even to pay for the immediate toll of climate change on the landscape. State lawmakers were teetering on the brink of a government shutdown this summer, triggered mainly by declining revenue from the oil sector, which provides the state with more than half of its budget and 90 percent of its discretionary spending. (The state has no income tax or a sales tax.)

Alaska Climate Research Center

Across the political spectrum, Alaskan officials agree that climate change is real and demands urgent action. But they also believe the best way to shore up the state’s finances is more fossil fuels.

In particular, as part of the push to raise $1 billion in revenue for tax reform, they are asking Congress to allow oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, reigniting one of the longest-running environmental fights in US history.

The irony wasn’t lost on Congress members on Thursday at a hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that featured 12 witnesses, 11 of them Alaskans, across three panels.

“Historians will look back at hearings like this and they will ask, ‘What were they thinking about?’” said Sen. Bernie Sanders. “And it is especially surprising that in a beautiful state like Alaska, which has been hit so hard by climate change, that you are not leading the world, leading this country, in telling us the damage that has been done and the need to move away from fossil fuel.”

The committee’s chair, Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, was frank about why she wants drilling in ANWR, emphasizing that the state only wants to access 2,000 acres within a 1.5 million–acre chunk of the refuge known as the 1002 Area.

“We are sensitive to the habitat in the area and care for it. Alaskans understand this,” she said. “And we know, we know full well, that opening the 1002 Area isn’t an immediate cure. But we also know that it’s something we have to do today, because the benefits of development will take time to fully realize.”

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System provides the state with 85 percent of its revenue, but the pipeline is now only running at a quarter of its capacity, as existing oil fields have dried up and low oil prices have undermined the case for more oil exploration.

Alaska Gov. Bill Walker also made the case that the state needs more fossil fuels.

“... just this week I signed an Administrative Order to reconvene Alaska’s efforts to develop a framework to provide Alaskan solutions to the Alaskan impacts of climate change — but I cannot hobble my state and deprive it of the resources and revenue it needs now as we plan for the future,” he said in his statement to the committee.

But Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, the ranking Democrat on the committee, wasn’t buying it.

“We’re here today because someone has come up with a ludicrous idea that we can pass a tax reform bill that raises the deficit, increases our taxes, and that will take a wildlife refuge to do it,” she said. “I almost want to call this ‘caribou for millionaires,’ because it is the most ridiculous idea I’ve ever heard.”

She noted that the Republican tax bill would add upward of $5 trillion to the deficit over five years, so $1 billion from ANWR drilling would barely make a dent, and that opening the refuge to drilling and preserving wildlife is an either/or proposition, since drilling would inevitably harm wildlife.

ANWR drilling still requires an act of Congress before it can happen. That could come in the form of a specific bill, but more likely, authorizing language will be rolled into the Republican tax reform bill, a sweet morsel to draw in support from Alaska.