Indian Country politics and public policy

Commentary by Mark Trahant

January 27, 2015

This is the Climate Moment. A possible turning point.

Consider the massive storm that resulted in a state of emergency throughout much of New England with temperatures in the teens, gusty winds, and snow measured by the foot not the inch. We know from the science that climate change will make storms more severe and more common.

It’s also the moment when the Obama administration stepped up to preserve the environment  — as well as protect Alaska Native communities — by limiting future oil and gas development in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and along the Coastal Plain.

A White House blog put it this way: “This far northern region is known as “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins” to Alaska Native communities. The Refuge sustains the most diverse array of wildlife in the entire Arctic — home not only to the Porcupine caribou, but to polar bears, gray wolves, and muskoxen. Bird species from the Coastal Plain migrate to all 50 states of the country — meaning that no matter where you live, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is part of your landscape.”

But pretty much all of official Alaska saw this issue differently. On Capitol Hill, Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski  said the administration has “effectively declared war on Alaska. That’s my view of it.”

“It’s a one-two-three kick to the gut of Alaska’s economy,” she said, adding that the governor told the Secretary of Interior that Alaska has a budget hole of about $3.5 billion — a problem that will be made worse without more oil production.

And this is an odd time for Alaska. The state budgeted for oil to be selling at more than a hundred dollars a barrel — and now the price is less than half that. This is a state that an oil and gas trade group brags that 92 percent of the state’s revenues come from that single industry.

So Alaska has had a grand old time with its oil money. Instead of a personal income tax, Alaskans receive their version of a tribal per capita every year. In fact Alaska ranks second lowest in the country in overall taxes (Wyoming is first) but that figure is skewed because nearly all of the money comes from corporate taxes. There is no income tax or sales tax.

Perhaps this serious budget shortage might actually force Alaska citizens to contribute to their state and pay taxes the way, oh, 49 other states and the District of Columbia do.

But let’s talk climate. Neither the White House nor the Interior Department cited climate change as their reason for limiting development in Alaska.

Then again, a new analysis published in Nature in January said that more fossil fuels will have to be left in the ground in order to prevent further damage from climate change. The piece said that known reserves of coal, oil and gas, including the Canadian tar sands, all Arctic oil and gas, cannot be developed and still keep temperatures under current limits. The authors wrote: “Our results suggest that, globally, a third of oil reserves,half of gas reserves and over 80 per cent of current coal reserves should remain unused from 2010 to 2050 in order to meet the target.”

That means no new Arctic oil and gas developments. No more tar sands. And, by extension, no Keystone XL pipeline.

What’s interesting about the research is how specific it is about developing Arctic resources.

The authors, Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins from University College in London, estimate “100 billion barrels of oil (including natural gas liquids) and 5 trillion cubic meters of gas in fields within the Arctic Circle that are not being produced as of 2010.”

That production alone could tip the globe and warm more than is considered safe. “The results indicate to us that all Arctic resources should be classified as unburnable. To conclude, these results demonstrate that a stark transformation in our understanding of fossil fuel availability is necessary. Although there have previously been fears over the scarcity of fossil fuels in a climate-constrained world this is no longer a relevant concern: large portions of the reserve base and an even greater proportion of the resource base should not be produced if the temperature rise is to remain below 2 degrees” above pre-industrial levels.

The president’s action is not final. Congress would have to do that. But this action means the Interior Department can manage the lands as if Congress had acted. (Congress could reverse Interior, but remember in the Senate that means finding 60 votes. That’s not likely to happen.)

Is this the Climate Moment? The turning point? There is a lot of work ahead, but the Obama administration is acting as if the answers are a “yes.”

Mark Trahant holds the Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. For up-to-the-minute posts, download the free Trahant Reports app for your smart phone or tablet.

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