Standing before a crowd of energy experts and industry leaders in Anchorage last week, Gov. Mike Dunleavy outlined his vision for Alaskan energy policy.
When it comes to energy, for Alaska, it’s going to be all-in, Dunleavy told the audience at the Alaska Sustainable Energy Conference, which his administration helped organize.
Alaska is an oil and gas state, Dunleavy said, but it can’t do that anymore only be an oil and gas state. Going forward, he said, it will be oil, it will be gas, it will be wind, it will be solar, it will be geothermal, it will be biomass, it will be nuclear.
Alaskan officials at the conference repeatedly said the state should both increase fossil fuel production and ramp up renewable energy such as wind and solar. But critics argue that this view ignores the devastating impacts of climate change.
Alaska has long faced an energy paradox. The state is a major oil producer, and oil taxes and fees have been a major source of revenue for decades, supporting state spending on everything from schools to roads. But most of that oil is shipped out of state. Meanwhile, rural Alaskan communities face some of the highest energy costs in the nation, often relying on expensive imported diesel and heating oil.
In an interview with Alaska Public Media, Dunleavy laid out his view on how to approach this dilemma. She argued that Alaska should double its production of fossil fuels as a source of income, while building more renewable energy in the state to reduce household bills.
As part of that vision, Dunleavy and other Alaska officials used the conference to reaffirm support for the Alaska LNG project: a proposed 800-mile pipeline from the North Slope to the Kenai Peninsula that would potentially allow Alaska to export natural gas. liquefied to buyers in Asia.
We want to be a global player in oil and gas, as well as coal and biomass, Dunleavy said in the interview. But, she added, internally we need to bring down the cost of energy and make it stable. And that’s where you see a lot of the renewable concepts come into play.
Dunleavy said for him that investing in renewable energy isn’t about cutting carbon emissions or fighting climate change, but about ensuring cheap energy for Alaskans that isn’t tied to volatile oil prices. The cost of running renewable energy projects has dropped dramatically in recent years.
In my view, if a diesel generator could consistently produce electricity at very low cost, we would consider that too, Dunleavy said.
But critics say this view is short-sighted and fails to account for climate change.
Phillip Wight, an energy historian at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, said Alaska has been pursuing a similar approach for decades.
Historically, Alaskans have not pursued renewable energy due to the climate benefits. We have pursued renewable energy because it has reduced our reliance on diesel and other more expensive fossil fuels, Wight said. We did it for economic reasons, not for climate reasons.
But today Wight said that as climate change accelerates, Alaska needs to consider more than just economic benefit.
Alaska faces the growing impacts of climate change, from sea ice loss and thawing permafrost to species deaths. Scientists say the world needs to cut carbon emissions, including from burning fossil fuels, by almost half by the end of this decade to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The state’s total contribution to the global oil and gas market is relatively small, but Wight argued that as long as Alaska continues to drill, it contributes to its own environmental woes.
We are still exacerbating a global problem and a global problem where Alaska is warming four times faster than the rest of the planet, Wight said. We are not running away from this problem. We are at the forefront of the climate crisis.
Proponents of fossil fuel production point out that there is no clear alternative state source of income that can replace oil production. But experts like Wight predict that as the world moves away from fossil fuels, Alaska will eventually have to stop drilling. The International Energy Agency warned in 2021 that any new infrastructure for fossil fuels would make it more difficult to meet global climate goals.
Meanwhile, some clean energy advocates say the state is still not doing enough to invest in renewable energy at home. Rachel Christensen of the Alaska Center, a nonprofit based in Anchorage, said she would like to see the governor make renewable energy policy a higher priority.
What we’re seeing is just talk about the potential of the solutions, Christiansen said. We need to see him actually take action to put them into effect.
Christiansen pointed to two proposals that were under consideration in the legislature this year: One would have required utilities to source a certain amount of energy from renewable projects. The other would create a green bank to help fund renewable projects in small communities.
Dunleavy backed both, but neither passed. In response to Christiansen’s criticism, a Dunleavy spokesperson reiterated the governor’s goal to provide Alaskans with affordable, reliable sources of energy.
Christensaid would also like to see the administration take climate change more seriously in its energy policy.
It should be more than just an economic move, Christiansen said. Our people and our industries are already feeling the effects of the climate crisis. And we can’t keep pushing these large-scale mining projects for export, just because that’s what we’ve always done.
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