Drilling in Arctic Refuge to close deficit? Let’s be real.

The White House's Budget for 2018 proposes to open Area 1002 in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas lease sales beginning in 2022/2023.

The White House’s Budget for 2018 proposes to open Area 1002 in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas lease sales beginning in 2022/2023.

The White House’s budget will be delivered to Congress today. Called “A New Foundation for American Greatness,” the 62-page document proposes the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling. Selling leases in Area 1002, as it’s known, would begin in 2022/2023, providing $900 million in revenue, which would help close the federal deficit. The budget estimates drawing in another $900 million from a second leasing round in 2026/2027. In total, the Trump budget proclaims in an associated document, called “Major Savings and Reforms,” that opening ANWR to drilling would reduce the federal deficit by $1.8 billion.

Major-Savings-Trump-Budget-Alaska-Arctic

The “Major Savings and Reforms” to be made by drilling in ANWR.

The White House proposes to share revenues “equally with the State of Alaska.” The $900 million or so that would come in the next ten years, however, will just be a drop in the bucket for a state that has faced year after year of severe budget deficits since the price of oil crashed in 2014. This year, the budget deficit was estimated to be $2.92 billion. If faced with a worst-case scenario where an approximately $3 billion budget deficit becomes the norm for the next ten years, $900 million looks like an even paltrier amount in comparison. Revenues and royalties could be generated once commercial drilling began in ANWR, but that would take years. In the meantime, Alaska could have been striving to develop alternative industries like wind and tidal energy rather than banking on potential profits from opening up an ecologically sensitive area to drilling.

Obama and Trump’s budgets compared

Budget

A comparison of Obama’s 2017 budget with Trump’s 2018 budget reveals that the former mentions climate change 36 times, while the latter only mentions it once.

As the potential opening of ANWR indicates, the replacement of Barack Obama with Donald Trump in the White House has caused federal priorities in the Arctic to shift dramatically. Comparing Obama’s final budget, for fiscal year 2017, with Trump’s 2018 budget further illustrates those contrasts.

The Obama budget highlighted topics like “Coastal Resilience,” explaining, “The Budget also provides the Denali Commission—an independent Federal agency created to facilitate technical assistance and economic development in Alaska—with $19 million, including $5 million to coordinate Federal, State, and tribal assistance to communities to develop and implement solutions to address the impacts of climate change.” The Obama budget also sought to invest $100 million across a number of additional agencies to deal with climate change while allocating $150 million for a Coast Guard icebreaker in the Arctic to tackle related problems.

Issues like improving American Indian and Alaska Native access to healthcare were also prioritized under the Obama budget. One line-item for 2017 estimated that standardizing the definition of who qualifies as American Indian and Alaska Native under the Affordable Care Act would increase the budget deficit by $520 million over the next decade. While the previous White House was spending money to try to improve healthcare for vulnerable and historically disadvantaged populations, the current White House wants to “save money” by cutting billions of dollars in funding to the Medicaid healthcare program for low-income individuals and food stamps.

Climate change or “other change”?

Another stark contrast is that the Obama 2017 budget mentioned climate change 36 times. The Trump budget mentions it zero times.

That should come as no surprise seeing that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hardly dared utter the phrase while speaking at the Arctic Council Ministerial Meeting in Fairbanks earlier this month. Reading stiffly from a set of prepared remarks, Tillerson said, “And finally, the Council has strengthened resilience at the national and local levels in the face of environmental and other change.” When the nation’s top diplomat won’t even call a spade a spade, the prospects for agreement between the U.S. with the other Arctic Council member states, let alone the rest of the climate-concerned international community, are dim.

(For fun, you can compare Tillerson’s stilted six-minute remarks in Fairbanks with former Secretary of State John Kerry’s 23-minute off-the-cuff speech at Iqaluit two years prior:)

Fly me to the moon: Prudhoe Bay from above

Deadhorse, Alaska

Deadhorse, Alaska. Photo: Mia Bennett

Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. The place where polar bears butt heads with the petroleum industry – literally. “If a bear’s spotted, work’s usually called off for the day,” a man in Barrow, 200 miles to the west, told me. Oil workers try to scare away the bear – sometimes a polar bear, sometimes a grizzly – and condition it so that it doesn’t come back in search of food.


On my recent trip to Alaska, I didn’t have the chance to stop in bear-battled Prudhoe or nearby Deadhorse, which houses the airport, lodging, and store for the oil workers. Deadhorse is also the end of the Dalton Highway, which starts north of Fairbanks some 400-odd miles to the south. I did, however, get to fly in and out of Prudhoe Bay airport, which in winter appears to miraculously emerge out of the white tundra.

Anchorage-Alaska-Airlines

Ascending out of Anchorage over the Talkeetna Mountains.

Flying from Anchorage, our airplane soared over the Talkeetna Mountains and the Alaska Range. I dozed off soon after the snow-capped peaks transitioned into the relatively flat white plains of the Yukon-Tanana Uplands. When I woke up an hour later, the packed Alaska Airlines flight was descending into Deadhorse, laden with cargo for the winter construction season. The seats that would normally take up the front half of the airplane are replaced with a cargo hold on the airline’s 737-400 Combi planes. Winter is the big construction season in Prudhoe Bay because it’s the only time of year when the ground is solid and snow-covered. This permits driving on the tundra without permanently damaging it.

Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay Airport, Alaska.

Sitting on the tarmac of the moon. Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay Airport. Photo: Mia Bennett

I looked at the view from my window seat and felt like we were descending onto another planet. It was a clear day and the sun bounced off the spindly network of chrome-colored pipes that criss-cross the North Slope. Straight, unwavering pipelines cut across meandering frozen rivers. All of the infrastructure out here is built on manmade gravel pads, for nothing can sit directly on top of the shifting permafrost, which thaws and refreezes every year. In this part of the world, gravel is almost more valuable than oil. The tiny rocks we take for granted down south are in short supply up north. No construction or excavation can happen without gravel.

Prudhoe-Bay-Frozen-Rivers

Straight pipelines intersect with meandering rivers in Prudhoe Bay in winter. Photo: Mia Bennett

The gray gravel pads are all but invisible in winter, however, and instead, the hundreds of miles of pipelines seem to stretch magically across the landscape. It is beautiful in its own way. Human ingenuity (or idiocy, depending on your point of view) has transformed an area that was once primarily used for local subsistence by the Inupiat people into a export-oriented resource frontier by dredging up the ancient seabed underlying the North Slope.

Prudhoe Bay is North America’s largest oil field. The extent of this industrial moonscape blew me away. It measures some 213,543 acres, or approximately 15 by 40 miles. That’s more than double the size of New York City and still significantly larger than Los Angeles. We flew over the oil field for a good long while before the platforms and pipelines faded into the west. Out here in mid-winter, it was impossible to tell where the tundra turned into the ocean, for both were frozen solid.

Prudhoe-Bay-from-Above-2

Taking off again from Prudhoe Bay airport, headed east towards Barrow.

“In space we read time,” reflects German historian Karl Schlögel. Above Prudhoe Bay, I felt as if I was witnessing modernity in all its silver-plated excesses. The sight was all the more jarring having come from Anchorage, where I had wandered down the old main street and read about the bustling heydey of a past boom centered around the construction of the Alaska Railway. Faded murals and maps of the “Last Frontier” were the chief reminders of this wealthy era in the city’s history. Up in Prudhoe, what will this extreme edge of the rush for Alaska’s resources look like when the oil runs dry? Abandoned pipelines and platforms might then no longer epitomize a future-forward modernity, but rather a rusty past.

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The main drag in Anchorage, where curio shops have replaced saloons and even a Japanese restaurant that bustled during the construction of the Alaska Railway.

Trump’s budget could cause infrastructure crisis for rural and Native Alaskans

Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay Airport, Alaska.

Under Trump’s budget, air service to many rural communities in Alaska may be eliminated. Photo: Deadhorse Airport (which will certainly remain economically viable, as it is next to Prudhoe Bay), Mia Bennett, 2017.

U.S. President Donald Trump released his proposed budget today, and the reaction has been swift and scathing. Rural communities, healthcare, the environment, science, and climate change research all face enormous cuts. Trump may have run a campaign on behalf of the common man. But given that the president spends half of his time running the government from the palatial Mar-a-Lago, it’s painfully obvious that he cares little about the fates of some of the nation’s most vulnerable people and places.

Rural America, much of which ironically voted for Trump, will have to contend with deep funding cuts if his budget is approved. As a state with one of the highest proportions of rural residents, Alaska would be particularly negatively impacted. Some 34% of Alaskans live outside the state’s cities. Alaska’s rural populations, too, are different than those in the Lower 48. While much of rural America voted for Trump, counties with large Alaska Native populations tended to vote for Clinton. (The same is true of rural, largely Native American counties in the Lower 48). Between 2008 and 2012, rural Alaska actually had some of the largest shifts in voting: many counties that had opted in 2008 for the Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, voted in 2012 for Barack Obama. This may reflect the fact that an Alaskan, Sarah Palin, was no longer on the ticket.

Yet it may also suggest that rural Alaska Natives believe that a Democratic president may do more for them than a Republican. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine Trump taking a tour of Alaska to witness climate change first-hand and visit Alaska Native settlements. Obama’s visit to Kotzebue made him the first sitting president to visit the American Arctic. In contrast, Trump proposes to eliminate the very agency that Obama tapped to lead the process of of climate change mitigation in coastal communities in Alaska, including determining which ones should be relocated. Unsurprisingly, then, in 2016, rural Alaska again tended to vote Democratic.

Alaska-2016-Election-Results

Rural Alaska to Trump: “Not my president?” 2016 Presidential election results for Alaska at the state house district level. Source: Ali Zifan/Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

If Trump’s budget is approved, Alaska Native villages could face an infrastructure crisis. During the campaign, Trump talked big about planning to ask Congress for a trillion dollar infrastructure bill. But maybe he had in mind a few big-ticket projects like pipelines and ports, for his budget proposes to make deep cuts in federal funding to vitally important small-scale infrastructure that supports rural livelihoods in Alaska.Trump wants to pay for a “big, beautiful, wall” to ostensibly keep out illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America. He doesn’t want to pay for shore walls in Alaska that would keep out a rising sea.

Here’s a rundown of how Trump’s budget would jeopardize infrastructure and well-being in rural Alaska.

  • Scraps programs like the Essential Air Service, which provides $21 million a year to guarantee air service to 61 communities in Alaska that otherwise would be viable in a market situation, and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which reduces the cost of heating for people with extremely high bills in places like frigid Alaska. People living in communities in the Lower 48 that lose air service due to the elimination of EAS may just have to drive longer distances, but that isn’t an option in Alaska. As the state’s sole representative to Congress, Don King (R), remarked last year, “That’s what serves my community…I don’t have highways. I don’t have streets. I’ve got air.”
  • Eliminates the Economic Development Administration, which the budget considers a “duplicative administration” even though it is the only federal agency exclusively focused on economic development. The EDA assists with regional development in places like Alaska, Appalachia, the Deep South, and New England.In 2013, EDA invested $838,155 in 12 projects in the State of Alaska. According to its website, its “investments help Alaska communities achieve bottom-up, locally-defined economic development goals and strategies.” Of the funds in 2013, nearly half ($370,000) went to six American Indian/Alaska Native economic development planning organizations in the state.

    The EDA has invested in Alaska Native communities since its establishment in 1965. The village of Gambell, on St. Lawrence Island halfway between Alaska and Russia, received $11,500 in the 1960s for its restoration. In the below photo from the EDA, the native Yupik people prepare an umiak (walrus-skin boat) in Gambell.

    Gambell, Prince, Alaska.

    Villagers making an umiak in 1967 Gambell, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. Photo: Economic Development Administration.

    One example of a more recent program that the EDA has funded in Alaska is a $700,000 investment in workforce development in rural Alaska, granted in May 2014. The grant went to the  Association of Village County Presidents in Bethel to purchase equipment used to train workers in mechanical disciplines, including aviation maintenance. This is a crucial skill in a region where many rely on small planes for transportation between remote villages. This program and many other similar ones once funded by the EDA may now no longer be possible.

  • Eliminates infrastructure assistance to Alaska Native Villages provided through the Environmental Protection Agency. This is one of the over 50 EPA programs the budget would cut due to being categorized as “lower priority and poorly performing programs.” Through its Alaska Native Villages and Rural Communities Water Grant Program, the EPA has provided over half a billion dollars in grants since 1995 to assist with clean water provisioning. At least 3,300 homes in rural Alaska, mostly in the western portion of the state, lack running water or flush toilets.
  • Cuts the budget for the Hazardous Substance Superfund Account by $330 million. There are eight active Superfund and Superfund-equivalent sites in Alaska including severely contaminated mine and military sites. Local and state governments would be expected to fill in the funding gap – but given Alaska’s nearly $3 billion budget deficit, this seems unlikely.
  • Overall, appears to cut research to climate change by 20%. Alaska is warming twice as fast as the Lower 48, making climate change research even more urgent. Even as climate change opens new opportunities for Arctic development, it threatens many coastal communities. Some of them, like Kivalina and Shishmaref, may even have to relocate inland to avoid rising sea levels, eroding shorelines, and more severe storm surges, as this report by the Army Corps of Engineers explains. The budget would cut funding to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the Department of Commerce, by $250 million. Specific programs targeted include coastal and marine management, which could unduly affect Alaska since its 6,640 miles of coastline are longer than the coastlines of all other states combined.

    Trump’s budget argues that coastal and marine management takes “lower priority than core functions maintained in the Budget such as surveys, charting, and fisheries management.” But successful fisheries are dependent on well-managed coasts. A study involving NOAA found, for instance, that ocean acidification puts Alaska fisheries and communities at high risk, particularly in the southeast and southwest where many depend on the sea for their livelihoods. According to a NOAA report, in Alaska in 2012, the seafood industry provided 55,890 jobs and accounted for over a billion dollars in landings revenue – a third of the nation’s total and nearly triple the next highest state, Massachusetts. If Trump thinks that this lucrative industry can be maintained without research into coastal management and climate change, he is wrong.

    NOAA-Ocean-Acidification-Alaska

    Studies involving NOAA that produce maps such as these, of the economic impacts of ocean acidification on Alaska’s fisheries, may no longer be possible if funding is cut.

  • Eliminates the Denali Commission, which was formed in 1998 by legendary Alaska Senator Ted Stevens (R) to help rural Alaska Native communities obtain infrastructure, health care, and job training. The commission has had its ups and downs, including an internal fiasco in which its own leader suggested it should be axed. Yet Obama’s decision to allocate $2 million to the commission to lead a project determining which coastal villages should be relocated gave it a new and important role. The Trump budget may now yank this away.

    Coastal communities in Alaska are counting on the government to step in to help them combat climate change. In 2015, Diane Ramoth, vice chair of the Selawik tribal government council and treasurer of the NANA Regional Corporation, expressed, “This is a very, very dire situation that we’re in if our United States government is going to allow our communities to no longer exist.”

    There is something even more dire than the current administration’s wish to eliminate a commission assisting the 31 coastal communities that may potentially slide into the sea. It is that the president seeks to undercut many of the basic services, programs, and subsidies that make modern life possible in the hundreds of communities across rural Alaska, climate change or no climate change. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the U.S. government effectively forced Alaska Natives to settle in place. But now, it does not even want to pay to support the infrastructure that people have become locked into. Under Trump, Alaska is no longer the Last Frontier, but rather the Forgotten Frontier.

What’s one big area with regard to Alaska that isn’t being defunded? Support for the oil industry. The President’s 2018 budget plans to “strengthen the Nation’s energy security by increasing funding for Department of Interior programs that support environmentally responsible development of energy on public lands and offshore waters.” This could possibly pave the way for more drilling in places like the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, America’s largest tract of undisturbed public land.

More drilling may be good news for the Alaskan state budget and all of its residents who receive Permanent Fund Dividends every year. But you can’t do much with money if you have no air service, no clean water, no job training, and no climate resilient infrastructure – except maybe pay for your skyrocketing heating bill, no longer subsidized under Trump.

2016 NPR-A Lease Sale Tract Results Map (12/14/2016). Source: Dept. of Interior/BLM.

2016 NPR-A Lease Sale Tract Results Map (12/14/2016). Source: Dept. of Interior/BLM.