Yesterday an article by the Alaska Wilderness League appeared in these pages, arguing for President Obama to exclude the Arctic from the Department of Interior’s forthcoming offshore oil and gas leasing program. 

The opinion paints a vivid picture of the conflict between ‘protection advocates’ trying to save the Arctic and industry’s attempts to exploit it. But for all the florid prose and dramatic language, the piece failed to acknowledge a number of important issues.

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For one thing, support for Arctic energy development is not limited to ‘Big Oil’ (if indeed a project sponsored by the Independent Petroleum Association of America can be characterized as such). It extends far beyond.

In a 2014 poll, 73 percent of Alaskans expressed support for Arctic offshore oil and gas drilling, many of whom have urged the Department of the Interior to keep Arctic Outer Continental Shelf leasing in the final program in recent months.

Crucially that support extends to the Native groups who would be most affected by development. An analysis of the docket of public comments on the proposed program, shows that a clear majority of Native organizations, including the Bering Straits Native Corporation, Aleut Corporation, Olgoonik Corporation, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and Ahtna Corporation, want to see offshore Arctic oil and gas developed.

As John Hopson Jr., the Mayor of Wainwright, Alaska, starkly noted, “without measured, responsible development of Alaska’s offshore resources, our (Native) communities face a grim economic future.”

The reason the vast majority of Alaskans have spoken out in favor of the industry is that they recognize the essential role it plays in the State’s economy, providing roughly one-third of its jobs and 90 percent of its revenues. Significantly, exploitation of the state’s offshore resources could generate tens of thousands of new jobs and billions in state and local tax revenues in the future.

Those numbers hint at a second glaring omission in the argument. For all of the Wilderness League’s talk about “breaking our addiction to fossil fuels” and “moving towards cleaner sources of energy”, they fail to provide any viable short-term alternative to the role that oil and gas currently plays in supporting Alaska’s economy.

Speaking at the Arctic Energy Center event, the Wilderness League in fact acknowledged this issue, noting that it will be “decades” before investment in renewable energy matches that of the oil and gas industry and that it had no short term suggestions on how to replace the lost investment or jobs. These are significant challenges which cannot simply be glossed over in the name of convenience.

Finally, the article attempts to argue that a lack of activity in the current price environment should be used to divine industry interest decades into the future.  But even if the Arctic is included in the forthcoming program, lease sales would not be held until the 2020s so drilling wouldn’t begin until well into the next decade. We simply have no way of knowing what the energy landscape will look like that far in the future.

We do know that America needs to keep our options open, not just for Alaska’s sake but for all of our future energy security.  A group of former military leaders, including former Defense Secretary William Cohen and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Ralston, neatly encapsulated the sentiment when submitting comments on the proposed program, “Keeping the Arctic in the program maintains our options; exclusion irreversibly eliminates them.” 

The Wilderness League’s portrait of the Arctic is a beguiling one, but it fails to acknowledge the realities of life in Alaska. Native groups and a clear majority of the state population have unequivocally stressed the essential role that the oil and gas industry plays in Alaska’s economy.

As the Department of the Interior finalizes its leasing program, it is critical that it acknowledges their viewpoint and not those of a small, albeit vocal, minority claiming to save the Arctic on their behalf.


Lucas Frances is spokesperson for the Arctic Energy Center.