In a May 31 editorial, the Daily News-Miner addressed this spring’s legal decision upholding protections for Alaska’s oceans from offshore drilling and the Trump administration’s predictable court appeal. The Northern Alaska Environmental Center is one of the plaintiffs in the case, and we applaud the court’s ruling that public lands and waters are not simply political pingpong balls and that presidents must govern within the confines of our legal system.
We intended to respond sooner, but the passage of time seems to speed up once summer hits, and weeks later, back from traveling, we find a browser tab still open to this editorial. It’s accompanied by other recent headlines: record-breaking heat waves the Arctic experienced this early summer, leading to rapidly diminishing ice sheets, unreliable sea ice and uncertainties for coastal communities around the world. We all know of Western Alaska communities facing relocation and health threats from the impacts shifting water tables have on wastewater treatment infrastructure. Around the North, permafrost thaw is leading to an expedited feedback loop of carbon and methane release into the atmosphere, in addition to deadly and long-frozen contagious diseases that are now reemerging into human and wildlife — namely caribou and reindeer — populations in the North. In Interior Alaska, we’re familiar with the havoc wreaked on roads and buildings by rapidly thawing permafrost, from routine repairs to frost heaves to what Alaska Public Media recently described as an “existential threat” to the Denali Park Road and the tourism model it enables. The road is not-so-slowly and steadily sliding off the mountainside.
Recently, some of our staff attended the Arctic Indigenous Climate Summit in Gwichyaa Zhee/Fort Yukon, where indigenous leaders gathered with scientists, advocates and scholars to share the realities of living in our changing climate. Elders who have hunted and fished their entire lives, informed by generations of hyper-local knowledge, shared their observations of this year’s low river levels, early salmon runs, late freezes and early breakups, and loss of food security. Many pointed out that despite industry’s promises over the past few decades, the proximity of extractive industry has only pushed caribou further away while offering none of the economic benefits corporations have experienced. Researchers shared the increased urgency of transitioning off of fossil fuels if we wish to retain what is left of the Arctic as we know it and shared as well the innovations that many, including many in rural Alaska, are already undertaking to show that this transition is possible.
These may seem like digressions, but they are the realities Alaskans are facing when we read about how offshore drilling is “good for us” and that the nebulous timeline of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s regressive energy agenda is somehow immune from the irrefutable progression of climate change. It ignores the fact that enacting this plan would first require years of building new infrastructure in the Arctic Outer Continental Shelf, where Royal Dutch Shell, the only company to drill an exploratory well, abandoned its dangerous and costly efforts in 2015 at significant financial loss. This kind of extraction cannot be done without major environmental and safety risks, and rushed actions only pose further dangers.
There’s one more browser tab open right now. It’s satire. The imagined narrator is the kind of uncredentialed speaker who takes up too much time at community meetings, claiming expertise superior to education, experience and study, simply by virtue of existing. “No evidence applies to us,” the speaker says. “(We) exist in a fog of mystery and enigmatic strangeness, and nothing that happens outside city boundaries should have any bearing on how we govern or exist.”
It’s unfortunate when a local newspaper grounds its editorial stance in outdated and over-simplified views of the oil industry and ignores the realities of the evidence we are all, in some cases quite literally, swimming in.
Erica Watson is communications manager at the Fairbanks-based Northern Alaska Environmental Center. Lisa Baraff is program director at the center.