Alaska’s Arctic natural resources are drawing renewed attention, putting economic and environmental treasures at risk.
VISIONS of financial windfalls from Alaska’s Arctic mineral and petroleum resources continue to fire the imaginations of America’s 21st-Century boardroom explorers.
Drilling for oil and mining for copper, gold and silver in ostensibly protected areas are back on the table after a flurry of governmental decisions that remind protectors of Alaska’s environmental legacy their work is never done.
Even as the hypothetical opportunity for resource extraction draws a breath, the litany of hazards to the state’s economy and its unique and fragile natural wonders remains unchanged.
In late May, Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke directed his department to review an Obama administration development plan for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and to update resource assessments of the Coastal Plain in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The words review and update are euphemisms for drilling a hole in the verbiage to let the extractions begin. Impacts on wildlife and fragile lakes and terrain are a nice afterthought.
In July the House Budget Committee released a draft budget resolution that would empower the House Natural Resources Committee to authorize drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge under expedited budget authority.
Credit the Defenders of Wildlife with tracking the nuances of these legislatively subtle approaches.
For all of the fear and loathing that oil drilling in these two areas inspire, another administrative action this summer stirs near panic even among those who might be ambivalent about selective drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve.
The Environmental Protection Agency backed off a lawsuit and withdrew water standards that might have impeded the Pebble mine near Alaska’s Bristol Bay.
Bristol Bay is home to Alaska’s legendary and lucrative salmon economy. A rich bounty of fish creates thousands of fishing and processing jobs, and legions of other employment. The industry fuels an estimated $1.5 billion in economic activity. The employment and economic impact stretches down the West Coast.
The known environmental hazards of mining are a direct threat to one of Alaska’s signature resources.
Alaska’s wishful thinking about striking it rich again with oil and minerals from risky places does not diminish the known realities and hazards.
Demand for petroleum products is down; the damages from spills and maritime accidents have a demonstrable history; climate-change issues are real and already felt in Alaska’s remote landscape; the U.S. Coast Guard has a diminished capacity to help in all manner of disasters; estimates of natural deposits are far from certifiable; and brutal Alaska weather tops the best of intentions and professional certainty.
Alaska is a long way away from local unanimity on these fundamental oil drilling and mining proposals. Others are gambling with all that makes Alaska a global treasure.