For a great week: wild salmon and century-old cedars.
Had a great week: Washington’s junior U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell.
Identity Crisis: Alaska.
Over the past seven days, Cantwell has joined forces with environmentalists, tribes, and fishing interests to score some big victories for Earth in the North.
First, when the Biden administration banned the construction of timber roads in the largest national forest in the United States, Tongass in southeast Alaska, they first won a three-decade old-tree logging war – as it currently does .
Then on Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency blocked the proposed pebble mine. It will be the largest open pit mine ever built in North America, located in the headwaters of Bristol Bay, home to the largest population of wild sockeye salmon.
“No company can build a mine on top of some of the best salmon habitat in the world,” Cantwell cheered Tuesday in a floor speech at the U.S. Senate.
Not so sure — lawyers and judges still have a say. Like President DeSantis? Although Cantwell has fought hard to protect Tongass for more than 20 years and Bristol Bay for more than 10 years, at least this temporary victory is worth it.
When given a choice between a fish and “one of the largest deposits ever discovered,” our system often doesn’t really side with the fish.
It’s also interesting because more and more of Alaska, which is one of the last frontiers of America’s old methods of heavy resource extraction, seems to be slowly digesting the harsh reality that it needs to change.
In a state where both the economy and the state budget are heavily tied to oil and gas, even “drill, baby, drill” types are starting to realize they need a new way to sell.
When Donald Trump’s administration held a “big fire sale” for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the final kamikaze days of the presidency, the sale fell through.
Likewise, when Alaska Republicans asked the federal government to hold an oil and gas auction in Cook Inlet, south of Anchorage, earlier this winter, only one bidder emerged.
“Alaska’s ‘north to the future’ adage should be revisited because I don’t think it makes much sense now,” fumed a retired BP executive after the failed ANWR sale.
But an interesting twist is taking place. Alaska’s governor, Trump, has gone all-in on carbon emissions as oil drilling declines, an ancient logging industry becomes obsolete and large-scale mining stalls.
Doesn’t capture carbon (although he’d still like to keep doing that, he says). As one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, he made Alaska the highest bidder.
“For decades, Alaska’s economy has depended on the extraction and harvesting of natural resources,” Alaska Lighthouse wrote in January. “Now, Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy wants the state to make money by keeping the trees and putting the carbon back into the ground.”
The tree part would involve leaving the forest untouched for a century in exchange for “carbon credits” that could be sold to companies to offset global warming emissions. The second part is more difficult — renting underground cavities left by past oil drilling to store captured carbon (rather than letting it enter the atmosphere, which would contribute to global warming).
Alaska didn’t invent these ideas, but it brought them unparalleled scale. For example, the state has identified 45 million acres of trees that could be used for carbon credits—an area the size of the entire state of Washington.
Industries Injected with CO2 The Underground is newer, but it now has a “gold rush” feel to it, as Congress passed a major climate change bill last year that dramatically increased the tax breaks available to corporations. If there’s any state with large tracts of land dedicated to such “carbon sequestration” projects, it’s Alaska.
Critics say it’s all “greenwashing,” and the governor isn’t serious because he’s a climate change denier himself. He rubbed his thumb and forefinger when a reporter asked him how he squared his skepticism with his evangelical-green proposals.
Alaska does know its gold rush. Maybe 50 years on, after the state was transformed by black gold during the crazy pipeline mania of the 1970s, it can now replay all of that in reverse, with workers flocking to pump the dregs of America’s fossil fuel party back to the same cause.
Oil prices may not fall so easily. But anyway, I’m sending this conversation from the North because something seems to be changing.
Cantwell’s political career coincides almost perfectly with the aging arc of Alaska’s old economy. For more than 20 years, she has led filibuster or other efforts against oil drilling at ANWR, the logging of old trees in the state’s vast coastal rainforest, and now against the nation’s largest mine.
If even politicians in Alaska suddenly crave things like carbon sequestration and credits, maybe the long-talked-about shift to a cleaner economy is finally starting to happen? They can’t just be tired of losing to Maria Cantwell.
It can still be “North to Future” without changing the state format. Only, as climate scientists have been warning, the future is not the same as the past.