OPINION: ANWR will not save us
December 29th, 2017 | Carey Restino
This week, many in the Arctic and Alaska celebrated news that portions of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will soon be opened to oil and gas drilling thanks to the recently passed tax reform bill, which included the ANWR provision.
Opening ANWR has been the drumbeat of many — including some Native corporations in the region — for so long that one can almost assume that there are clear and obvious benefits to opening the region. Back when the big push was on promoting offshore drilling, some opined that ANWR was the lesser of those two evils — since an oil spill on land would do far less damage than an oil spill in icy Arctic waters. But now that oil companies seem less than interested in drilling on the open sea, that's a moot point.
Just like drilling in Arctic waters, however, the question remains — what is truly in it for Alaskans? More importantly, will those benefits outweigh the costs, which will be felt most acutely, ironically, by the people of the North?
If ANWR lands open for lease sale bids, it's almost certain they won't bring in the $1.8 billion touted in the budget. Some in the know suggest the real number, given current interest in Arctic oil and gas development, will be far, far less; maybe a tenth of the number in the budget. The inflated budget figure also assumes that every single acre of the area opened will be bid on at a rate far above the current industry norm. That's not the way it has played out in other regions of the Arctic, where only around 5.5 percent of the acres offered for lease have received interest from the oil and gas industry.
There are many unanswered questions about ANWR: what will it cost to produce oil there, and how will that compare with the oil and gas development currently going on in the Lower 48? Oil and gas companies want to make money, and if that oil is too hard to access, then they will go elsewhere, just like they did with the offshore drilling leases.
But let's just assume there is easy oil in ANWR — revenues from that development won't be seen for at least a decade, so they aren't going to be the answer to Alaska's revenue crisis. Maybe some people will get jobs out of the deal, but if it's anything like oil and gas development elsewhere in Alaska, a big slice of the income pie will be getting on a plane every few weeks for homes outside the state.
In 2015, more than 36 percent of the people working the best-paying jobs in Alaska were from out of state, and they earned a whopping $708 million, little of which was circulating back into Alaska's economy. Oil and gas companies say they would prefer to hire Alaskans, but they can't find enough properly trained workers who can pass the pre-employment drug screens. Hmmm.
It is true that oil and gas development has helped a people who live in a few areas of the Arctic, but for most of Alaska, it is no longer the cash cow it once was when technology had yet been developed to extract oil in the Lower 48. The game has changed. Many Alaskans may be greeting the news that ANWR is opening as if it were a return to our pipeline-building days, when jobs were plentiful and state coffers were full. It is none of those things, even if industry enthusiasm outpaces its current interest.
Alaska would do better to train more of our workforce to be employed in the high-paying jobs that already exist, and stop the outflow of money from the North Slope and other regions of Alaska. If that money was put back into our economy, it would exponentially impact the state. And if we already are an undertrained workforce, why do we think Alaskans will qualify for the ANWR jobs, if and when they come to be?
Meanwhile, the resources that have kept people alive for thousands of years in northern Alaska are already struggling. This year, in much of the Arctic, the sea ice isn't setting in. People are having to travel further and further from home and take big risks just to fill their freezers. These are the Alaskans who wear hoodies, not suits and ties, and they are in trouble right now, this winter.
Alaskans need to stop listening to the slick ad campaigns about how opening ANWR will be the answer to all our problems, and start being realistic about solving the problems in the state, and in the Arctic, today. Turning our attention to ANWR is only distracting us from making the tough decisions we all need to make to keep Alaskans, and Alaska's economy, alive.