Alaska Bucks Feds, Invites More Oil Production

Published June 1, 2004

Tired of the federal government hampering its economy by prohibiting natural resource recovery from federal lands located in the state, the Alaskan state government has taken matters into its own hands and opened more of its non-federal lands to oil and gas recovery.

ANWR Region Newly Opened

On March 31, the state announced it will offer 350,000 acres of new offshore leases for oil and gas recovery in an area adjacent to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). While not likely to be as productive as potential ANWR sites, the state-owned land adjacent to the Refuge is an economically viable location for resource recovery and will offset some of the economic burden caused by the U.S. Senate’s decision to block recovery of ANWR’s rich natural resources.

State and federal legislators from Alaska have expressed overwhelming support for ANWR resource recovery but have been frustrated by a block of East Coast Senators claiming to be better at managing Alaskan lands than Alaska residents themselves.

The state also will open up for resource recovery another 670,000 acres of state-managed lands near the federally managed National Petroleum Reserve. Environmental activist groups have sued the federal government in an attempt to stop oil production in the Reserve. (See “Activist Groups Sue to Stop Oil Production in National Petroleum Reserve,” Environment & Climate News, May 2004.) The suit, filed in February, claims the interests of caribou and other animals must take priority over oil production. Activist groups filed the suit despite the fact that the Reserve, an Indiana-sized area of land approximately 100 miles from ANWR, was specifically set aside by the federal government in 1923 for oil production.

The roughly 1 million acres of land near ANWR and the National Petroleum Reserve are but a small portion of the state-managed lands Alaska is opening for production. Responding to its citizens’ economic hardship and the shortage of production resulting from ANWR restrictions, the Alaskan state government is considering many additional state-managed North Slope lands for resource recovery. Under consideration are Bristol Bay, a portion of the Bering Sea recently freed from a federal drilling moratorium; 33 million acres of the Chuckchi Sea; 25 million acres of Norton Sound; and 2.5 million acres of the lower Cook Inlet.

Explained Governor Frank Murkowski (R), “America should not be held hostage by Middle East oil imports. Motorists should not have to pay more than $2 for a gallon of gasoline. Alaska oil, Alaska natural gas, can help balance that equation.”

Voter Backlash Against Extremists

By making state lands more friendly for natural resource recovery, Alaskan legislators are hoping to avoid a political backlash for the economic harms caused by federal prohibitions on recovery. At the federal level, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski (the governor’s daughter) is facing a serious re-election threat from former Governor Tony Knowles (D), who argues Murkowski has been ineffective at persuading her fellow senators to allow sufficient resource recovery in ANWR and other Alaska lands.

With polls showing more than 70 percent of Alaskans favor ANWR resource recovery, political experts and campaign officials for both parties recognize that, according to the Greenwire environmental news service, “the candidate that can convince voters he will do the best job of bringing additional energy development to the state could gain the upper hand in the election.”

Observed Greenwire, “The Knowles campaign has argued that what Alaskans need in the Senate is a Democrat who will convince other members of his party to vote for ANWR exploration.”

“[Knowles’] belief is that Alaska is much better off with a senator in both parties,” said Knowles campaign manager Bob King. “There’s a lot more promise on the Democratic side for changing votes, simply because there are more votes that can be changed.”

Murkowski responds that Knowles is closely aligned with the very Democrats responsible for blocking ANWR energy development. Adding another Democrat to the Senate, argues the Murkowski campaign, rewards and gives more power to the obstructionist Democratic caucus.

“Alaskan voters want to know, ‘Tony Knowles, who are you going to support when you go to the ballot box? Are you going to support John Kerry and his anti-Alaskan message … or are you going to support President Bush who has worked for a long time to open up ANWR,'” said Murkowski campaign manager Justin Stiefel.

Regardless of how the Knowles-Murkowski race turns out, both campaigns clearly understand the candidate who is seen as the most capable advocate of responsible resource recovery is the candidate who will win the election.

Resource Recovery Touted in Other States

The political rewards of promoting responsible resource recovery are evident this election year in the lower 48 states, as well.

In Montana, Republican candidates appealed to a standing-room-only crowd at a gubernatorial debate by contrasting the state’s foundering economy with the booming economy of neighboring Wyoming. Wyoming state officials project $1.2 billion more in 2004 state tax revenues than previously forecast, largely a result of the state’s successful natural gas industry. For a state with a $5 billion annual budget, the unexpected gain of more than $1 billion was music to the ears of citizens and legislators.

“There’s a prayer around here,” said Wyoming State Rep. Randall Luthi (R). “Dear God, give us another boom and we promise not to waste it.” With the assistance of a pro-recovery economic environment, Wyoming’s prayers are being answered.

Not so, lately, in Montana. With regulations influenced by the anti-development agenda of environmental activist groups, the state is facing a likely deficit this year. The projected deficit is especially painful considering the state’s low per-capita income.

The four Republican candidates for Montana governor received thunderous applause for pledging to restore more balance to the state’s energy and environment regulations.

“(Montana is) the Treasure State,” asserted Secretary of State Bob Brown. “Even though we’re the poorest state in per-capita income, we’re the richest in resource wealth.”

Recognizing that modern technology allows natural resources to be recovered in an environmentally sensitive manner is essential to preserving the economic future of Montana’s children, noted Brown.

“Montanans want leadership to have a ‘can do’ attitude,” added Billings businessman Pat Davison, who also is running for governor. “We’re sick and tired of people telling us we can’t do things.”

Davison blasted environmental activists “back East” for interfering with state policy and making it impossible for Montana citizens to benefit from their rich natural resources.

“We [in Montana] are environmentalists in many ways,” Davison emphasized. “We enjoy the pristine lands, we enjoy the clean air and the clean water. We know that we can produce, and yet maintain a quality of life. We have the opportunity to take back Montana from extreme environmental groups.”

Candidate Tom Keating agreed that resource recovery can work in conjunction with environmental awareness. Keating received enthusiastic applause when he observed, “for about 100 years, we’ve logged, mined, drilled oil and gas, and produced coal. And we still had a beautiful environment.”

Keating noted Montana’s economic problems began when legislation favored by activist groups gave obstructionists a free hand to challenge economic development.

“The Montana Environmental Policy Act,” said Keating, “is what environmentalists use to take the state to court and stop new investment throughout the state. I’m calling for a repeal of [such] acts.”

Former state legislator Ken Miller worried his children may have to leave Montana for lack of an economic future.

“They love this state as much as I do,” Miller said. “But I’m not sure they’re going to have opportunities to stay here.”

Miller said that rather than forcing citizens to choose between the environment and the economy, the state should promote resource recovery and economic development that works hand-in-hand with environmental stewardship. “I believe we can have our cake and eat it too,” he said.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].