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.


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.


    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.

Looking back on 2016, a record-breaking year in the Arctic

Arctic piano concert, Greenpeace

In 2016, pianist Ludovico Einaudi played an elegy for the Arctic aboard a floating plastic platform. Let’s hope that there will be more than floating icebergs in future decades.

A few days ago in December, I was asked by Eye on the Arctic’s Eilis Quinn to sum up Arctic news this year in just one word. The one I chose? “Record-breaking.” This year at the top of the world, sea ice retreated in November, a time of year when it should be thickening and expanding. The North Pole experienced one of its warmest Christmases on record. The pioneering voyage of the first luxury cruise ship through the Northwest Passage exemplified the explosive growth of the Arctic tourism industry. The Barents Sea’s first oil field, Goliat, and the northernmost oil field in the world at that, went into production in March. At the same time, the U.S. and Canadian federal governments put a moratorium on to offshore oil exploration in North America.

Eilis and I discussed several other issues in the Arctic for the radio program, which will be broadcast in a few days. Eye on the Arctic has already begun featuring other contributors’ interviews, such as with Heather Exner-Pirot, Strategist for Outreach and Indigenous Engagement at the University of Saskatchewan.

A preview of my reflections for 2016 is below. I’ll update this post with a link to a recording of the interview once it’s online.


Q: What were the three most important Arctic stories of 2016?

1. Climate: The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Arctic Report Card stated that 2016 experienced a stronger warming signal in the Arctic than any other year on record. This has been visible in record low sea ice minimum extents in both summer and winter and the freakish retreat of sea ice in November. Fall freeze-up of ice was delayed, too, and on December 25, the North Pole was approximately 50°F warmer than average. These environmental changes are both record-breaking and signs of larger warming trends up north that affect the rest of the world.

2. Offshore Oil: U.S. President Barack Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau basically jointly said no to Arctic offshore exploration in North America. In a calculated show of bilateral political force, they released a U.S.-Canada Joint Arctic Leaders’ Statement. The White House has designated most of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas as indefinitely off-limits to offshore leasing, while Canada is doing the same in the Canadian Arctic, though with a review every five years. Needless to say, folks in Alaska, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut – the three state and territorial governments with Arctic Ocean shorelines in North America – aren’t very happy about the decision that’s been instituted from above. Peter Taptuna, Nunavut’s Premier, criticized, “We do want to be getting to a state where we can make our own determination of our priorities, and the way to do that is gain meaningful revenue from resource development…And at the same time, when one potential source of revenue is taken off the table, it puts us back at practically square one where Ottawa will make the decisions for us”

3. The voyage of Crystal Serenity through the Northwest Passage. This historic voyage marks a new era for Arctic tourism and Arctic cruising that’s opening up thanks in part to climate change. Importantly, cruising doesn’t require a huge amount of infrastructure unlike oil and gas to get started – though whether the industry is prepared for contingencies is debatable given the dearth of search and rescue capabilities up north. In any case, recognition of tourism as the Arctic economic opportunity of the moment is beginning to appear at higher levels, too. At the Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavik, Iceland earlier this year, a lot of the movers and shakers in the Arctic world were talking about ecotourism as the future of Arctic economic development, whereas it was oil and gas until the bottom fell out of that market a few years ago.

Q: What was the one Arctic story or event of 2016 that you didn’t see coming?
The closure of the Port of Churchill by its private operator, Omnitrax, and the bankruptcy of Northern Transportation Company Limited, a company that has supplied communities in northwest Canada via barge for 80 years. Although long-distance, trans-Arctic shipping is drawing lots of attention, intra-Arctic transportation has not proven especially economically feasible since government subsidies dried up in the years following the end of the Cold War and the push to maintain state presence in the North at all costs.

Q: What was the most overlooked northern story or issue of the year?
Bluntly, the Russian Arctic continues to be overlooked year after year. We hear about snowballs appearing on a beach in Siberia or the killing of thousands of reindeer to prevent the spread of anthrax. The latter is obviously an important issue, but the less click-baity stories still often go unreported. For instance, I’ve read a few articles in the Russian media about a hunger strike by unpaid workers on the Yamal Peninsula, which is the heart of Russia’s Arctic liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry. I can’t find anything about this story, however, in the English press, even though I think it brings up important issues regarding the human ethics of Arctic oil and gas extraction. Compared to the environmental ethics of offshore drilling, this issue tends to be under-examined.

Q: What will you be watching for in 2017?
A lot of it hinges on what happens after January 20. I’ll essentially be watching for the direction that the U.S. Arctic chairmanship takes, if any, after President-elect Trump’s inauguration, and whether an eventual easing of sanctions coupled with ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson’s potential appointment as Secretary of State opens up further drilling in the Russian offshore. It will be hard to quickly undo President Obama’s ban of offshore drilling  in Alaska, but U.S. companies could somewhat more easily get in on the game in Russia, where Russian companies are already active and where infrastructure is already in place.


Who knows where 2017 will lead in the Arctic?

Trump’s election a cold reality check for the Arctic


President-elect Donald Trump. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr Creative Commons 2.0 License

Today, half of America woke up feeling overjoyed that finally, their voices had been heard. The other half felt sickened, defeated, and deeply concerned at what the next four years hold. Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election promises a lot of change at home and abroad. For the Arctic, his presidency does not bode well – but at the end of the day, there may be hope. Here are four damaging outcomes a Trump presidency could have for the Arctic, along with a few possible silver linings.

Health care for Alaska Natives


A session on mental well-being in the Arctic at the October 2016 Arctic Circle assembly in Iceland. Trump’s rollback of Obamacare may undermine health care for Alaska Natives. Photo: Arctic Circle.

In the 1990’s, Trump repeatedly warred with Native American tribes as they built casinos on their land across the country that threatened his hold on the industry. Today, Trump’s promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA) may spell disaster for the many Alaska Natives who have come to rely on it. Trump’s threat to repeal Obamacare is not an empty one: the 22 million people covered by it, mostly through Medicaid and insurance marketplaces, could end up uninsured. Some of these people are inevitably Alaska Natives. On average, this group has poor health compared to other Alaskans, including higher risks of mental health issues, suicide, diabetes, and obesity, and generally faces more difficult access to health care facilities. Nationwide, 30% of Native Americans are uninsured compared to other Americans.

Prior to Obamacare, pre-existing treaties between Natives and the federal government guaranteed health care, which was delivered by the Indian Health Service. Yet the program was poorly funded and hard to access for Native peoples living off-reservation and in cities, away from tribal health facilities. ACA, commonly referred to as Obamacare, expanded coverage for Alaska Natives and Native Americans and also exempted them from having to pay the fee if they did not sign up for insurance. Alaska is also one of the states that has expanded Medicaid under Obamacare. If Obama’s signature health plan disappears, it’s not clear what will replace it. Any gap in coverage for Alaska Natives, an already vulnerable population, will represent a blow to Arctic health at large.

Climate change denial

Gas flaring releases large amounts of methane.

Gas flaring releases large amounts of methane that contribute to global warming.

Trump has denied climate change, calling it a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to render U.S. manufacturing uncompetitive. Climate change may well be intensifying due to Chinese actions: the country accounts for 10% of all emissions released since industrialization began in 1750 and is now the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. But climate change is not a hoax, and China’s cooperation is crucial for stemming the release of emissions into the atmosphere. Yet when President Obama leaves office, the world can likely say goodbye to bilateral efforts between the U.S. and other nations on climate change such as the U.S.-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change or the U.S.-Canada Joint Statement on Climate, Energy, and Arctic Leadership. Multilateral agreements like the historic Paris Agreement reached at COP 21 could even be thrown out the window if Trump follows through on his threat to “cancel” the international agreement.

So in short, whereas the White House released a joint statement in November 2014 with China that said the following,

“The United States of America and the People’s Republic of China have a critical role to play in combating global climate change, one of the greatest threats facing humanity. The seriousness of the challenge calls upon the two sides to work constructively together for the common good.”

Trump tweeted this in November 2012:

Fast forward to November 2016, and president-elect Trump has just appointed notorious climate change skeptic Myron Ebell to head up the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency. With science deniers such as him in charge of government agencies, there’s likely to be a brain drain from government. Top scientists and environmentalists will not want to work in bureaus and agencies that ultimately report to Trump. This may have damaging consequences for drafting informed policy about a fast-changing Arctic. Even worse, Trump’s desire to tear up methane restrictions that have been proposed for oil and gas producers could speed up global warming, since methane’s impact is 100 times greater than a molecule of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. With the U.S. having overtaken Russia as the world’s biggest producer of gas, one would think we have a responsibility to frack and drill responsibly – but not Trump.

Arctic offshore drilling: Revived hopes in Alaska and Russia?

The Prirazlomnaya platform in Russia's Kara Sea. Could a Trump presidency re-open the Russian offshore to U.S. investment?

The Prirazlomnaya platform in Russia’s Kara Sea. Could a Trump presidency re-open the Russian offshore to U.S. investment?

Trump is a champion of an “all-of-the-above” energy policy, which promotes fossil fuels alongside renewables like wind and solar. He wants to produce more oil and more coal, even though the U.S. already has a glut of the viscous fossil fuel and the rocky one is essentially dead on arrival as utility companies switch to natural gas for power generation.

Trump’s pro-drilling stance will sit well in oil-rich Alaska, where most in the state, including many Alaska Native corporations and their shareholders, support the expansion of offshore drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. Trump would have to do a lot in the way of providing subsidies in order to encourage corporations like Shell to come back, however. At around $44, the current price of a barrel of oil is far too low to make offshore drilling in the Alaskan Arctic sensible. OPEC released a report yesterday estimating that the price of oil would still only recover to $60 by 2020, meaning that U.S. Arctic offshore drilling may remain tabled throughout Trump’s term. But his election may mean an easing of U.S. sanctions on Russia, which could lead to the re-entry of U.S. companies like ExxonMobil into the Russian Arctic offshore. Sanctions forced the company to exit from its joint drilling project with Russian oil company Rosneft in the Kara Sea in October 2014.

Trump’s triumph also presents a new roadblock to protesters and defenders of water rights in Standing Rock, North Dakota. President Obama, who has generally refrained from commenting on the issue, said last week that the government was “going to let it play out for several more weeks, and determine whether or not this can be resolved in a way that I think is properly attentive to the traditions of the first Americans.” While many have criticized Obama for his failure to intervene, Trump would probably ink a deal with Energy Transfer Partners in no time.

Neo-isolationism and the Arctic Council


Secretary of State John Kerry at an Arctic Council meeting. This probably won’t be repeated under Trump. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. is the current chair of the Arctic Council, which it has overseen under a motto of “One Arctic: Shared Opportunities, Challenges, and Responsibilities.” Trump’s “America First” agenda of neo-isolationism, however promises to roll back the country’s commitments to what are perceived as unnecessary overseas entanglements, from South Korea to Europe. The Arctic may be one such region where the incoming White House team chooses to downscale the country’s efforts. But still, Trump’s forthcoming inauguration on January 20, 2017 means that his administration will have to oversee the last four months of the U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship. The 10th Ministerial Meeting, where the U.S. will pass the baton to Finland, will take place on May 11 in Fairbanks, Alaska. The Obama Administration sent Secretaries of State John Kerry and Hillary Clinton to various Arctic meetings. They were the highest-ever ranking U.S. representatives to be involved in these forums. In contrast, Trump may send a low-ranking climate change skeptic in their stead and raise a banner of “America First” instead of “One Arctic.” Seriously, can you imagine one Trump’s supposed top picks for secretary of state, Newt Gingrich, going to an Arctic Circle meeting?

Regardless of who Trump sends (if anyone), most other Arctic states will probably agree that the chairmanship can’t pass to Finland soon enough. And after the U.S. chairmanship comes to a close, for the Arctic’s sake, a continuation of the historic U.S. negligence of northern affairs rather than active intervention by the Trump administration may be preferable.

Are there any silver linings?

More pipelines may be constructed under President Trump.

More pipelines and Arctic infrastructure in general may be constructed under President Trump. Photo: Mia Bennett.

Many Americans probably feel that they are living in an alternate universe whose Trumpian reality they refuse to believe. But his election must be accepted and met head-on. As Secretary Clinton remarked this morning during her concession speech, “We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.” We must also look for some of the positives that may come out of the election for the Arctic.

  • U.S. Relations with Russia may well improve, which could enhance cooperation between the two countries in the Arctic. Trump suggested back in May that he would consider recognizing Crimea as part of Russia, and President Vladimir Putin was among the first world leaders to congratulate Trump.
  • Trump’s sub-Arctic roots: The tiny town of Bennett, British Columbia, where Trump’s German grandfather tried his hand at running a brothel and restaurant called the Arctic Hotel during the heady days of the Yukon Gold Rush, may see an influx of tourists. The Carcross Tagish First Nation has been planning to capitalize on the local Trump history and build a resort in what is now a ghost town.
  • Arctic infrastructure: Trump has vowed to spend “at least double” the $275 billion Hillary Clinton had proposed to spend on infrastructure over the next five years on projects such as roads, bridges, and ports. He’s also especially keen to build more pipelines, including Keystone XL, and “approve private sector energy infrastructure projects.”  While pipelines are a dead end in terms of leading towards an energy transition, at least their construction may temporarily employ people in places like Alaska.
  • Galvanizing popular action on climate: As my colleague Scott Stephenson wrote from the United Nations COP 22 conference in Marrakech, Morocco, protesters who had anticipated presenting a “presidential to-do list” on climate change hastily turned it into a “people’s to-do list.” This kind of attitude is healthy regardless of whether or not Clinton or Trump had been elected. Climate change is a global problem that cannot be solved by the U.S. president alone, no matter how great his illusions of grandeur are. Globe-spanning environmental issues must be tackled by the world’s people coming together. Trump may have divided the U.S. electorate during the campaign, but if his election serves to truly bring people together and galvanize the fight against climate change, then something positive may be made out of what many view as a devastatingly low moment in the history of America.

Since the Civil War, more liberal-minded Americans, often war resisters and draft dodgers, have fled to Canada. This may happen again, with Trump-loathing U.S. citizens crossing the border north for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s warm embrace. But for many concerned Americans, the choice is to stay home and work for a better country and a better Arctic – even though the road ahead may be long, tough, and frigid.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead