The transition away from fossil fuels will be hard. But betting on oil will not help Alaska or our nation.
On Alaska’s North Slope, in the oil fields around Deadhorse, it’s hard to imagine stricter rules. Any wayward drop of oil from a truck’s engine is caught by a yellow plastic basin placed underneath. For traction on ice, ground-up walnut shells are used in place of sand or salt. Every shop, housing complex, or office is built on its own gravel island, above and removed from the fragile tundra.
But this is heavy industry all the same. Towering drill rigs and giant cranes. Hulking man-camps several stories tall. Diesel heaters and countless trucks. There are enough lights around Deadhorse to fill the night with a dull yellow haze. I spent a winter working there, helping build an office building.
This in a part of the state where other times I have traveled for many days without seeing another person, or even a sign of one. Where I have followed wolf tracks in the snow and camped in valleys hoping to catch a caribou as bands of hundreds file through. Where I’ve seen my thermometer bottom out and watched the purple and green of the aurora dance overhead.
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For decades, the debate over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has largely been one about conservation versus development. About protecting a specific, special place and the people and animals who rely on it, versus the jobs and tax revenue that continue to be a huge part of Alaska’s economy.
I understand the value of those jobs, and that revenue. Alaska needs both, badly. But the situation is different now. For better or worse, it’s harder and harder to deny the dramatic changes happening here. Ice storms in winter, heat waves in summer, dramatic wildfires. If there’s one thing that unites Alaskans, it’s that we get outside. And wherever we look, things are changing. The state’s department of health recently issued a report with a long list of ways climate change is impacting mental and physical health.
Alaska’s oil industry is not solely responsible for climate change. Nor would blocking new development in Alaska solve it. (Ultimately, bold action at the national and international level is needed.) But this doesn’t mean, as some have suggested, that Alaska should double down on oil at a time when the world desperately needs to shift away from fossil fuels.
Simply put, opening whole new areas to drilling with the aim of pumping billions of barrels decades from now is not consistent with the future we need. Grabbing for market share is a game in which we all lose.
Many Alaskans recognize this. The push to develop the refuge will find resistance not only from the conservation crowd and those who rely directly on the Porcupine caribou herd but also from those who recognize drilling as a threat to a stable, safe and just world. Climate change is the reason all Americans have a stake in what happens in the refuge.
The transition away from fossil fuels will be hard. The communities and workers who directly depend on the oil industry deserve help. But betting on oil will not help Alaska or our nation. The sooner we start to develop a cleaner economy, new sources of jobs and revenues, the easier the transition will be. There are huge opportunities in energy-efficiency. Renewable energy is booming as few imagined.
Symbolic or not, many of us have come to see drilling in the refuge not just as a marker of how we value what true wilderness we have left, but also of the future we imagine. More than ever, it is a question all Americans should ask, whether they hope to see the refuge in person or not.
Drilling might be clean, in a sense. But it is not compatible with wilderness, and it is not compatible with a stable future.