Alaska’s economic development strategy needs more robust input

August 22, 2022 5:20 pm
Container ships are lined up at the Port of Alaska in Anchorage on Oct. 11, 2020. The port and Sandia National Laboratories are teaming up to evaluate Cook Inlet renewable energy resources to potentially fuel a planned microgrid. (Photo by Erik Hill/Port of Alaska)

Container ships are lined up at the Port of Alaska in Anchorage on Oct. 11, 2020. (Photo by Erik Hill/Port of Alaska)

How can the State of Alaska develop an innovative, just and achievable strategy for our collective economic future? Those writing the state’s economic development strategy need to incorporate input from people and organizations not wedded to business as usual such as the Alaska oil and gas industry, which still seems in denial about climate change. Robust input on the strategy from diverse stakeholders such as conservation, labor union, government employee and economic justice advocates is essential and that would require extending the public comment period beyond Aug. 26. 

A non-publicized 30-day public comment period on the draft Alaska Statewide Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy for 2022-2027  opened on July 27, a document needed to obtain certain types of federal funds. While the draft strategy contains some admirable goals, public involvement to date lacked involvement by key organizations. That can be remedied, however, through additional outreach by the authors.

The Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development (DCCED) along with the Alaska Development Team in Governor Dunleavy’s office created the draft strategy, available here: The University of Alaska Center for Economic Development, under contract with DCCED, performed the background research and the public process, and center staff wrote the document. 

The public process included a strategy committee composed of state leaders from business, government, and the nonprofit sector that provided “strategic guidance.” Unfortunately, the strategy committee had key stakeholder gaps, excluding conservation organizations and labor unions, especially industrial workers, caregivers, and teachers. As a result, the draft strategy does not contain emerging climate change-related sectors such as workers who would prevent fugitive methane emissions from oil and gas infrastructure through leak detection and repair (which will be required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the newly enacted federal Inflation Reduction Act). Following research by University of Alaska engineers, direct air capture of carbon for storage underground using the state’s abundant renewable energy also could be a growth sector, with potential payments from Outside industrial customers to inject carbon from the atmosphere and from substantial Inflation Reduction Act subsidies. Growth in telemedicine could be a way to reduce health-related travel with its associated greenhouse gas emissions.

The draft strategy also does not address Alaska’s severe shortage of teachers due to the lack of a defined benefit pension nor the nearly one in five state government jobs that are vacant including state troopers, ferry staff and others. Lack of teachers will impact the desire of young families to move to Alaska. And the draft strategy is mum on the idea of phasing in state taxes to replace declining oil revenues in order to fund government jobs that provide needed public services. Government jobs, including school positions, are part of the state’s economic foundations and context; the governmental sector should be explicitly addressed in the document’s goals.

Last, the draft strategy does not focus on ensuring equal opportunities for all Alaskans and reducing systemic economic and other inequalities based on race. While these are tough things to achieve, they are essential to improve the lives of all Alaskans and should be part of any comprehensive economic development strategy. Notably, the draft strategy’s vision does seek to create “an enduring economic structure where all Alaskans adapt, grow, and thrive” so the strategy’s goals need to build on this economic justice vision.

Focusing nearly entirely on organizations that are invested in the state’s status quo for the document’s strategy committee was a missed opportunity. That oversight can be addressed through outreach by the strategy’s authors and by comments submitted by diverse stakeholders. As a neutral facilitator, the University of Alaska could build on a revised version of this strategy and then lead future, statewide discussions on how Alaska could best adapt to climate change while ensuring a flourishing economy.

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Lois Epstein
Lois Epstein

Lois Epstein, P.E., is a licensed engineer who owns an environmental consulting small business in Anchorage. She has lived in Anchorage for over 20 years and currently is the board chair of the Alaska Public Interest Research Group.