By Dr. Alan Boraas
Missing from discussions surrounding passage of SB-21, the oil tax giveaway estimated to be in the billions of dollars over several years, was acknowledgement of a vision of what that money could do for Alaska.
In the past decades Alaska’s economy and state funding have been driven by oil, first from Cook Inlet then from the North Slope. But two factors mitigate against Alaska as a continuing oil state — the emergence of new technologies resulting in relatively cheap, accessible oil in the Lower 48 states, Canada and the Pacific Rim, and the inevitable emptying of the large basins that feed the 48-inch, Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline. According to annual reports, Alaska is no longer a prime focus of the major multinationals.
The clock is ticking on our chance to parlay our oil wealth into something of lasting consequence in addition to the Alaska Permanent Fund. Consequently, there are several reasons we should repeal SB-21 if we can agree that there is a higher use for a few billion dollars other than to satisfy the wants of some of our citizens (think artificial turf football surfaces) and line the pockets of oil corporation investors.
• Reason No. 1: To develop the best college system in the north. Right now, Scandinavian universities hold that distinction. Despite some recent gains, we are half of what we should be because of neglect and bad decision-making. The University of Alaska should be the beacon of education, training and research for all things northern, and in so doing reaffirm our identity as northern people — not just temporary emigrants. We can jump-start the current system with an influx of vision and funding. Cost: $1 billion over four years.
• Reason No. 2: We should use our billions to fund research and development of tidal and river energy generation. This summer a Maine company, Ocean Renewable Power Company, plans to anchor one of its generators off of the East Forelands on the bottom of Cook Inlet. While tidal and river generation is renewable and potentially cheap, the initial research and development is not. ORPC received $25 million from the state of Maine to develop its system and a version is now cranking out power in Bangor.
Cook Inlet’s formidable tidal power faces significant hurdles — silt, salmon, belugas and ice, to name a few. These are engineering problems that will be overcome with research and development. A billion dollars or so of oil tax money would go a long way toward making long-dreamed-of tidal and river energy a reality. Cost: $1.5 billion over four years.
• Reason No. 3: We need to reinvigorate geothermal prospecting on Mount Spurr. Thanks to the Icelanders, this technology is well developed but we need to find the right source and connect to the power grid a few miles away at Beluga. And, like tidal energy, we need the will to make it happen. Our current governor and legislative leadership, with close ties to the oil industry, do not have that will. Cost: $1.5 billion over four years.
• Reason No. 4. This reason is not a system or a technology, but a moral imperative. Climate change is real, and a significant factor is human-caused global warming. While they may differ on the magnitude of the effects, virtually every climate scientist acknowledges that a 2-degree-Celsius rise in global temperature due to carbon emissions will be the tipping point. The result will magnify desertification in dry areas, create excessive rainfall in wet areas, Arctic Ocean and glacier melting will accelerate, and sea level will rise, displacing millions of people. Economies will be wrecked and global revolution will result.
Dealing with climate change is overwhelming because there is seemingly so little we can do about it, sort of like the tornado bearing down on Moore, Okla. But history could know that in the second decade of the 21st century one state, Alaska, did what it could. It transformed state-owned oil into taxes and used it for large-scale development of tidal, river and geothermal power. Cost: two and three above.
Today in Alaska we do not have a visionary to guide us. Each must be our own visionary for the collective good, not the coffers of distant corporations. A vote to repeal SB-21 and the vision to use the remaining oil tax money wisely would be a giant step toward Alaska fulfilling its economic and cultural destiny.
Dr. Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.
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