Alaska’s environmental standards are not some of the best
A snow-covered Alaska is seen from space in this November 2001 photo from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on a NASA satellite. (NASA/GSFC photo)
Readers of the Alaska Beacon know that Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s tough remarks about flaring made during his State of the State speech were basically nothing but hot air. This seems to be a pattern. In a recent op-ed Dunleavy promised that Alaska has “some of the toughest environmental standards in the world,” but offered no specifics to back up his assertion. We write to inform you that, sadly, his claim is false. Yes, developing oil and gas in Alaska may be better than doing so in a corrupt dictatorship like Venezuela but peel away the rhetoric and our state’s environmental record basically stinks.
For example: Alaska is the only coastal state in the nation (including the Great Lakes states) without its own coastal management laws. Coastal zones are the most productive biologically, and Alaska had strong, protective laws in place to cover ours for over 20 years. But in 2003 Gov. Frank Murkowski pushed the legislature to greatly weaken those laws and Gov. Sean Parnell finished off the job in 2011 by allowing them to lapse and die altogether. The loss is dire. State Rep. Alan Austerman (R-Kodiak) said at the time, “If we don’t have coastal zone management, we don’t have a voice, period.”
Another major rollback of environmental standards came in 2013 when Gov. Parnell successfully pushed through a bill aimed at unraveling the cruise-ship discharge requirements that Alaskans approved in the 2006 election. Gov. Dunleavy continued the trend by eliminating the budget for the ocean ranger program in 2019, so we now monitor cruise-ship discharges through the occasional spot check, but largely on the honor system.
Perhaps you are sensing a theme of weak state oversight over industry? There’s more. Consider methane emissions. Since methane is 80 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, regulating gas leaks tightly should be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, the watchdog for leaks, the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, has repeatedly shown itself unwilling to act. One example occurred when a Hilcorp gas pipeline burst in Cook Inlet a few years ago and spewed gas into the atmosphere for months, causing the loss of tens of thousands of barrels of oil production. AOGCC took the bizarre, head-in-the-sand position that it was powerless to do anything. Hauled into court, and eventually corrected by the Alaska Supreme Court on the extent of its jurisdiction, the commission still refused to hold Hilcorp accountable. A more recent example took place at the Alpine oil field in March 2022. The gas leak in this case was so severe that the oil field was shut down, and employees were evacuated. Nearly a year later, the agency has yet to hold a single public hearing on the matter. A more supine attitude to leaks is hard to imagine.
Finally, there is the worst of the worst – oil spills. Maintaining a world-class team of spill responders should be job No. 1 for a state that adhered to “some of the toughest environmental standards in the world.” Unfortunately, if you look inside the state’s Division of Spill Prevention and Response (SPAR), you will see a different story. Despite legislative support for increasing the headcount within SPAR, Gov. Dunleavy instead cut 17 positions during his first term in office, leaving SPAR with less hands-on spill experience. The governor’s own fiscal year 2023 budget statement notes the disarray in SPAR, pointing out that “last year 19 employees out of 123 left the division”. The budget statement further notes that “senior staff have a larger portion of their time consumed by training new staff due to high turnover and relatively more junior applicants.” With a caseload of over 2,400 active contaminated sites, SPAR’s numbers should not be going down. It appears that even on this critical environmental front – oil spill prevention and contamination clean-up – the state of Alaska is moving in the wrong direction.
To sum up, Alaska has retreated on habitat protection measures, diluted a voter initiative on clean water, is weak on enforcing regulations to limit methane leaks and is diminishing our ability to respond to oil spills and clean up contaminated sites. Additionally, Alaska remains a loner among states – no coastal management program and no climate action plan. This is a far cry from having environmental standards considered to be some of the highest in the world. Rather the evidence shows the opposite – Alaska is an environmental laggard.
We are not alone in this conclusion. The 2021 U.S. News and World Report’s environmental ranking of states puts Alaska at 46th overall.
Correction: The U.S. News and World Report’s ranking was for 2021. The organization did not issue state environmental rankings in 2022.
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