In Alaska, Obama Will Be in Middle of Oil and Climate Change...

In Alaska, Obama Will Be in Middle of Oil and Climate Change Battle

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By KIRK JOHNSONAUG. 28, 2015

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Gov. Bill Walker ticks down the things he wants President Obama to see in visiting this vast northern state starting on Monday, and glorious glacial vistas are not at the top of the list.

He would like Mr. Obama to see the people lining up for services at state agencies that have been crippled by billions of dollars in state budget cuts as oil revenues have collapsed. Mr. Walker points out that law enforcement, education and transportation — all crucial in a state with roadless areas larger than Texas — were all severely hit as a fifth of the state budget got redlined out earlier this year, and billions more in cuts loom for next year.

 

Governor Bill Walker of Alaska addressed the budget problems caused by falling oil prices last week.As Oil Prices Fall, Alaska’s New Governor Faces a Novel Goal, FrugalityJAN. 25, 2015
“I’d show him the number of employees we’ve laid off, the troopers we’ve laid off, the trooper stations we’ve closed, the brand-new helicopters that we’re putting into storage — taking the blades off because we can’t afford to operate them on search and rescue,” said Mr. Walker, a former lawyer and businessman who was elected last year as a political independent. “It’s real, and it’s not a slight adjustment.”

 

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Gov. Bill Walker said he wanted President Obama to understand Alaska’s dependence on natural resources. Credit Joshua Corbett for The New York Times
As Mr. Obama comes north for what the White House has described as an examination of the effects of climate change, Alaska is battling over oil — its chief source of revenue — and the thorny implications of drilling. Oil prices have fallen to multiyear lows, and production has declined from aging oil fields — with consequences rippling through a state that pays for just about everything with taxes from oil.

Mr. Walker, in an interview in his Anchorage office, said he planned to press Mr. Obama to loosen restrictions on exploration and to pledge support for a natural gas pipeline. More broadly, Mr. Walker said, he hoped to help the president understand Alaska’s dependence, because of climate and geography, on what can be extracted from the land or sea.

“From oil and gas development to fish caught in the ocean, we literally live off the resources,” Mr. Walker said.

But fossil fuels are also blamed for human-caused climate change, and that reality has set up a competing claim for the president’s attention. More drilling for energy, climate advocates say, is not the answer for Alaska or the planet. With a three-day trip for Mr. Obama planned out by the White House — including the first visit by a sitting president to some of Alaska’s most remote Arctic communities — the uncertainties and stakes are high, people on all sides of the energy fight say.

“It’s a battle for humanity,” said Ryan Joe, 26, an Alaska Native college student who was helping plan an anti-Arctic-drilling rally for Monday in downtown Anchorage, led by Greenpeace and other groups. “How is drilling somewhere going to make it better for the world?” Mr. Joe said.

Recent tumult in global stock and energy markets has added further urgency, as doubts about economic growth in China and around the world have clouded Alaska’s future. The credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s earlier this month downgraded Alaska’s outlook to negative from stable, citing the structural deficit in the state budget.

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An Alaska Native tribal group with investments in Arctic leases also began a statewide television advertising campaign this week to coincide with the president’s visit. The tribe asserts that, contrary to the idea that drilling threatens native life, energy development is crucial to paying for the services that tribes depend on in remote places.

The Arctic “is not a pristine snow globe that deserves to be tucked away and preserved,” said Tara Sweeney, a spokeswoman for the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, based in Barrow, in a telephone interview. “Our people have lived here for thousands of years,” she added, “and have found the balance between responsible development and environmental stewardship.”

Mr. Obama himself is seen as conflicted by many Alaskans, most of whom did not vote for him in either of his presidential races.

His administration’s approval earlier this month of Shell Oil’s plan to explore for oil in the Chukchi Sea off the northwest coast gave hope to those who want him to encourage or least allow more drilling. But that he is coming here specifically to look at climate change implications also suggests to many people an agenda that does not necessarily include Alaska’s economic interests. The White House has signaled that Mr. Obama might not want to talk about oil and drilling at all while he is here.

Ryan Joe is helping to plan a rally against Arctic drilling. Credit Joshua Corbett for The New York Times
“To say I’m skeptical of the president’s intentions is an understatement,” wrote Representative Don Young, Republican of Alaska, in an editorial this week in the Alaska Dispatch News.

Alaska has had an uneven economic ride with Mr. Obama even beyond oil. In per capita federal spending, for things like land management and other programs, it was one of the most federally dependent states in 2013, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, beaten only by the geographic triumvirate around the capital — Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. From 2008 to 2013, the study said, Alaska was in 49th place for growth of per capita federal spending.

Military bases are yet another crucial part of the Alaska economy, and the number of military personnel based in the state is also set to shrink, with a decrease of 2,675 troops recently announced by the Defense Department.

Mr. Walker said he would like the president to stand somewhere in far western Alaska, where Russia’s coast can be seen across the Bering Sea, and understand that climate change is also bringing geopolitical change. Alaska, he said, just as it was in the Cold War, is at the front lines as Russian rebuilds its Arctic military presence.

Some Alaskans are hoping Mr. Obama sees a middle way.

The president of the State Senate, Kevin Meyer, a Republican, said a tour of the Cook Inlet south of Anchorage, where oil-drilling platforms and rich fishing grounds are flourishing, would show that the issues are not all black and white.

“Resource development, fishing and the environment can all coexist,” Mr. Meyer said, “and I think Alaska is a good example of that, if that’s what he wants to see.”

But even if the focus remains fixed on climate, Mr. Walker said that the visit could still be valuable and important to Alaska because the economic and social costs of climate change are also clearly mounting.

At least one remote coastal village, with more probably set to follow, may have to be moved, he said, as sea levels rise.

“Relocating a village is pretty spendy,” Mr. Walker said.

But there is also anxiety here about whether images of a changing climate — captured by the cameras and attention that will follow Mr. Obama — could be perceived by some people as Alaska’s fault, as an energy dependent state.

As Chris Tuck, the minority leader in the State House of Representatives and a Democrat, put it: “I’m just hoping we don’t get blamed for the fact that the glaciers are melting.”

A version of this article appears in print on August 29, 2015, on page A11 of the New York edition with the headline: In Trip to Alaska, Obama Will Be in Middle of Battle Over Oil and Climate Change . Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe

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