As Congress prepares to pass climate bill, Alaska environmentalists see more harm than good

They say Alaska is poised to be a ‘sacrifice zone’ for national gains on greenhouse gases

By: and - August 11, 2022 5:00 am
Senators Lisa Murkowski and Joe Manchin sit together on stage at Anchorage's Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center at an April 8 banquest during the Arctic Encounter Symposium. Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who attended the event with Murkowski, repeatedly praised the Alaska Republican and called for federal policies to boost fossil-fuel production. He said he supports Murkowski's push for oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He has campaigned across party lines for Murkowski's reelection. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Senators Lisa Murkowski and Joe Manchin sit together on stage at Anchorage’s Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center at an April 8 banquest during the Arctic Encounter Symposium. Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat who attended the event with Murkowski, repeatedly praised the Alaska Republican and called for federal policies to boost fossil-fuel production. He said he supports Murkowski’s push for oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He has campaigned across party lines for Murkowski’s reelection. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

The $370 billion climate bill that passed the U.S. Senate on Sunday is America’s biggest-ever response to climate change, expected to both reduce the national deficit and significantly cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

But here in Alaska, environmental organizers are worried that tradeoffs in the bill will lead to more mining and drilling in the state in order to accomplish national goals.

“Our view on this bill is ultimately, it causes more harm than good,” said Emily Sullivan, communications director for the Northern Alaska Environmental Center.

“It does feel like they’re trading — they’re sacrificing Alaska to get climate gains elsewhere,” said Rebecca Noblin, an attorney and policy justice lead for Native Movement.

The bill has yet to pass the U.S. House, but that is expected by the end of the week, whereupon it will go to the desk of President Joe Biden, who has said he will sign it. 

Financial incentives

At the heart of the climate bill are tax credits that give financial incentives for green-power projects, home energy efficiency (things like heat pumps, rooftop solar and insulation), and electric vehicles.

“We’re really excited about the whole of the investments,” said Jenny-Marie Stryker, political director for the Alaska Center.

“There’s a lot of things we’re excited about … but we also recognize that this bill is not perfect,” she said.

Getting the electric-vehicle incentive requires a car builder to use batteries at least partially made with materials mined or processed in the United States.

The supply of those materials is limited, and Alaska is home to a significant number of as-yet-undeveloped mineral deposits, which could encourage mining here. That’s a plus for business interests but it’s negative for environmental groups who might otherwise be happy with the bill.

“We’re very concerned that this bill will cause projects like the Ambler mining road to be fast-tracked,” Sullivan said.

The Ambler road, a project of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, would link mining projects in northwest Alaska to the Dalton Highway. It’s been challenged by environmental groups who have filed lawsuits to stop it.

The bill explicitly calls for an oil and gas lease sale in the federal waters of Cook Inlet. The federal government canceled a sale earlier this year, citing a lack of interest.

Liz Mering, advocacy director at Cook Inletkeeper, said that section “is just incredibly disappointing and kind of overshadows the bill for us.”

Public testimony during the sale’s environmental impact statement process had been nearly unanimous against allowing it to go forward, and the only support for it came from industry groups, not actual companies that would have been bidding, Mering said. When the federal government canceled the sale earlier this year, that had been the right thing, she said.

“People had stood up, talked to their government, and the government had listened,” Mering said.

“For a community that is feeling a little bit sacrificed for political machinations, it’s hard,” she said.

The Cook Inlet sale is the only one explicitly required in Alaska under the bill, but a different section could force the federal government to open more land to oil and gas extraction.

The section, known as Section 50265, states that in order to allow a solar or wind project on federal lands, the federal government must have an oil and gas lease sale beforehand. 

The Center for Biological Diversity called it a “poison pill.”

Environmental groups here are still working out the implications of that section, but the plain language seems to create an incentive to hold more oil and gas lease sales here.

“They could hold an oil and gas lease sale here in Alaska in order to put up a solar plant in Nevada,” Noblin said.

Staff in the offices of Alaska’s senators, Republicans Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, did not respond to requests for an interview about the bill’s components. 

Both senators voted against the bill’s passage and issued prepared statements afterward voicing their opposition to it. 

Includes some of Alaska senators’ priorities

Despite their opposition, the bill contains items that each senator has prioritized.

Sullivan has repeatedly and consistently advocated faster permitting processes for construction and development projects, and the bill sets speedier timelines for some permitting processes and requires the president to designate a list of 25 high-priority projects that will receive preferential treatment in the permitting process.

When the U.S. Senate approved the bill on a party-line vote, it marked the end of months of negotiations among Democrats, who needed to garner the support of Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

Manchin, in an April 8 news conference at the Arctic Encounter Symposium in Anchorage, reiterated that he would not support any effort to strip oil and gas leasing from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a priority of some environmentalists.

“I will take the lead from my dear friend, Sen. Lisa Murkowski. She knows Alaska better than anybody I know,” Manchin said. 

Manchin was in Anchorage to attend the conference, but he has also endorsed Murkowski and has been campaigning for her.

In 2017, Murkowski successfully amended a tax law in order to require the federal government to hold two oil and gas lease sales in ANWR. One sale has taken place, but the result of that sale is tied up in court, and it isn’t clear when a second sale will take place.

The Gwich’in Steering Committee, which opposes ANWR drilling, issued a message saying its leaders “denounce” Senate leadership for failing to reverse the mandate.

“In the Arctic, we’re experiencing a warming climate at four times the rate as the rest of the world, yet Congress has chosen to ignore the health of the Arctic and the Gwich’in way of life by failing to stop this destructive and failed oil and gas program,” said Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee. “We will never stop fighting to protect these sacred lands, the Porcupine caribou, and our communities.”

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Correction: The initial version of this article incorrectly stated that the bill includes an item from Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, that renews a legal-aid program for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. That renewal is in a separate bill that advanced on the same day. 

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James Brooks
James Brooks

James Brooks is a longtime Alaska reporter, having previously worked at the Anchorage Daily News, Juneau Empire, Kodiak Mirror and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. A graduate of Virginia Tech, he is married to Caitlyn Ellis, owns a house in Juneau and has a small sled dog named Barley. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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Yereth Rosen
Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen came to Alaska in 1987 to work for the Anchorage Times. She has been reporting on Alaska news ever since, covering stories ranging from oil spills to sled-dog races. She has reported for Reuters, for the Alaska Dispatch News, for Arctic Today and for other organizations. She covers environmental issues, energy, climate change, natural resources, economic and business news, health, science and Arctic concerns -- subjects with a lot of overlap. In her free time, she likes to ski and watch her son's hockey games.

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