Climate

Alaska Governor Wants To Drill In The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to Pay For Climate Programs

CREDIT: AP Photo/Diana Haecker

An abandoned house at the west end of Shishmaref, Alaska, Dec. 8, 2006, sits on the beach after sliding off during a fall storm in 2005.

Climate change is already hitting Alaska hard — the state has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the country, and those warming temperatures are driving a loss of sea ice, melting of permafrost, and worsening fire season. Already, the majority of Alaska’s native villages are threatened by erosion and flooding, and a handful have made serious plans to relocate.

But adapting to the impacts of climate change isn’t cheap — in addition to part of the $1 billion National Disaster Resilience Competition fund that Alaska is hoping to tap into, the state is also requesting $162.4 million in relief for villages vulnerable to climate change.

To help finance its adaptation to climate change — including programs to relocate native villages — Alaska’s governor Bill Walker (I) told BBC News that the state needs to “urgently” drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

“We are in a significant fiscal challenge. We have villages that are washing away because of changes in the climate,” Walker told BBC News.

This aerial photo shows the island village of Kivalina, an Alaska Native community of 400 people already receding into the ocean as a result of rising sea levels.

This aerial photo shows the island village of Kivalina, an Alaska Native community of 400 people already receding into the ocean as a result of rising sea levels.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

When asked if extra drilling would help pay for adapting to these impacts, Walker responded “absolutely,” telling the BBC reporter that the state should proceed “in a responsible way as we have in the past.” Walker argued that a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should be opened up to drilling, in order to increase the state’s revenue.

“This isn’t something we can put off for 10-20 years,” Walker said. “We have to begin this process now — it’s an absolute urgency for Alaska.”

Plummeting oil prices have already caused financial troubles for the state, with oil-and-gas taxes and revenues accounting for just 75 percent of the state’s unrestricted budgets, down from nearly 90 percent in 2014. In 2014, total petroleum revenues for the state — including property and production taxes, royalties, rent, and interest payments — reached $5.7 billion, accounting for nearly a third of all state revenues. Alaska has neither an income tax nor a sales tax, forcing the state to lean heavily on petroleum revenues to fund state programs.

With the price of oil dropping — and Shell pulling out of its drilling operation in the Chukchi Sea — Alaska has been forced to look for new drilling projects to boost its sinking petroleum revenues. An appealing location for supporters of Alaskan drilling is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), an area of about 19 million acres located in Alaska’s North Slope region.

In April, President Obama formally sent a letter to Congress asking that 12.28 million acres of ANWR be designated as wilderness — a move that was met with resistance from Alaskan politicians, because while ANWR is home to some of the most diverse wildlife in the Arctic, it also sits atop vast stores of oil. The Coastal Plain of ANWR alone could contain as much as 16 billion recoverable barrels of oil. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has called opening up ANWR to drilling a “top priority.”

Environmentalists worry that opening ANWR to drilling could have catastrophic impacts for the environment and native communities that depend on the Refuge’s wildlife. ANWR’s Coastal Plain provides crucial calving habitat for the Porcupine caribou, an animal that the Gwich’in people — an indigenous group that has lived on the land from northeastern Alaska to the Canadian Yukon for thousands of years — heavily depend on for food security. If ANWR is opened to drilling, studies have suggested that the Porcupine caribou’s ability to safely birth and raise their young could be impacted.

Beyond local ecosystems and communities, climate scientists warn that drilling in the Arctic could have serious consequences for climate change — a study published in Nature last January found that in order to limit global warming to 2°C, all of the Arctic’s remaining oil and gas reserves must remain in the ground. So even if opening up new drilling projects would boost Alaska’s revenue in the short term, it’s likely that the decision would only exacerbate the adverse impacts of climate change over the long run.