Monday, February 17, 2020

Update on the AKCAN investigation into Alaska oil and gas emissions

A recent Alaska Institute for Climate & Energy investigation of oil and gas industry emissions revealed that industry is flaring or venting between 3 to 6 billion cubic feet of gas annually from Alaska's production facilities and wells; enough gas to heat twenty to forty thousand Alaskan homes a year. These carbon dioxide and methane emissions produced by flaring and venting are staggering, in possible violation of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Act that prohibits oil and gas waste, costing Alaskan’s money and contributing to climate change.

According to Alaska’s 2015 Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report [1], over half of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions are generated by the oil and gas industry.  By statute, the state considers any non-emergency release of oil and gas, usually in the form of venting or flaring, in excess of one hour as potential waste. Thus, better enforcement of Alaska’s oil and gas waste rules has long been viewed as Alaska’s “low hanging fruit” for reducing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

In the fall of 2018 Kate Troll filed a request for hearing with the AOGCC to urge the Commission to “fully enforce and strengthen existing statutes requiring Alaska’s oil and gas industry to stop all non-emergency venting and flaring from Alaska oil and gas wells”, on behalf of more than 400 Alaskan petitioners [2].  The hearing was granted on Dec 18, 2018. Ms. Troll was joined in testimony by Lois Epstein with The Wilderness Society, Alaska and Ceal Smith with the Alaska Climate Action Network.

















Figure 1. AOGCC Reported annual venting and flaring in Alaska 2012-2019, as compared to the average annual consumption by a Enstar customer (139 thousand cubic feet). About 25,000 homes could be supplied with the reported natural gas lost in flaring statewide.











Alaska Climate Action Network's review of industry reports obtained from AOGCC prior to the hearing revealed 1,468 gas releases greater than 1 hour occurred between 2012-17, in potential violation of Alaska’s waste rules [3],[4].  Kate Troll explicitly asked the commissioners for an explanation of this large number of releases and to provide evidence of enforcement action.

In their written response [5], Commissioners Foerster and Seamount dismissed Troll’s concerns and failed to address the releases.  Instead they claimed the “root concern” of the parties requesting the hearing was climate change and that the agency had “no authority to act regarding that subject matter” despite Troll’s opening statement that she was not asking the Commission to address climate change:
To start I want you to know that while the topic of climate change will enter this hearing, we are not asking you to enlarge your mission.  We do not seek mission creep, we merely ask that you urgently and competently enforce AS. 31.05.095 which prohibits the waste of oil and gas and regulation 20 ACC 25.235 (b) which defines waste as gas released, burned or permitted to escape into the air. Because that gas which escapes is mostly methane, a greenhouse gas about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide over the long-term and almost 90 times more potent over the short-term, the matter of climate change enlarges the public interest behind your existing mission. In other word, it’s not mission creep we seek but mission urgency.
In response to the AOGCC failure to address substantive issues raised during the Dec 18, the Alaska Climate Action Network, Ground Truth Trekking, and Alaska Community Action On Toxics filed a new request for a hearing [6] with the AOGCC on March 20, 2019 specifically lodging a complaint of waste.  Eleven months later, they have still not received a response.

In the interim, the group filed an information request with AOGCC in order to investigate the facts behind the releases.  They found that between January 2012 and October 2018 industry flared or vented, on average 3,240,000 Mcf (thousand cubic feet) of gas per year.  BP and Hilcorp were the biggest emitters. BP vented or flared 2,300,000 Mcf per year on average from its large North Slope operations and Hilcorp (with far fewer wells and infrastructure) vented or flared 400,000 Mcf per year on average between 2012 and 2019 (see Figure 1).

But that’s not the full story.  A 2019, the US Department of Energy (DoE), Office of Oil & Natural Gas Regulations reported far higher levels of venting and flaring in Alaska, between 42% and 74% higher than industry reported to the AOGCC between 2013-2018 [8] (see Table 1 and Figure 2 below).

Despite several calls to State and Federal agencies, we’ve been unable to get an explanation for the significant gap between the DoE and AOGCC reports. These discrepancies, and the AOGCC’s failure to address citizen concerns, raise far more questions than they answer.


Chart from US Department of Energy Alaska Natural Gas Flaring and Venting Regulations, May 2019 

As a recent New York Time's story indicates [10] excessive flaring and venting are continuing unabated by major oil companies that also operate in Alaska. Often this is driven by logistical difficulties that make it quicker and  more profitable to waste the gas than to bring it to market. Much of Alaska’s gas faces similar logistical difficulties.

As a prudent resource owner, it would be in the state’s best interest to ensure that gas is conserved for potential future use. Flared or vented, the gas is wasted forever, and the resulting pollution will last for generations.  Our analysis and interaction with AOGCC indicate that a similar pattern of large-scale waste is happening here. Companies are burning massive amounts of natural gas unabated and with little to no oversight or enforcement whilst aggressively seeking to rollback bonding and regulatory requirements [11]. The AOGCC needs to aggressively investigate incidences and amounts of waste, to ensure that any venting and flaring is truly a response to an emergency, rather than a matter of cost or convenience. 


Figure 2. Comparison of DoE and AOGCC gas vent and flare reports reveal significant differences.

________

[1] Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventory, https://dec.alaska.gov/air/anpms/projects-reports/greenhouse-gas-inventory 
[2] https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/cut-alaska-methane-emissions-50-before-you-leave-office
[4] Gas released, burned or permitted to escape into the air constitutes waste: 20 AAC 25.235(b), and waste of oil and gas in the state is prohibited: Sec. 31.05.095.
[6] As required under AS 31.05.060(a)
[7] Graphic created by Brentwood Higman, PhD, Ground Truth Alaska.
[8] US Department of Energy, Office of Oil & Natural Gas Regulations, Alaska Natural Gas Flaring and Venting Regulations, May 2019, https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2019/08/f66/Alaska.pdf
[9] Ibid.
[10] Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, “Despite Their Promises, Giant Energy Companies Burn Away Vast Amounts of Natural Gas”, October 16, 2019.
[11] Proposed repeal of regulations, https://www.commerce.alaska.gov/web/aogcc/Home.aspx

Monday, January 27, 2020

ALASKA CLIMATE CHANGE RESPONSE FUND ACT OF 2020


DRAFT

House / Senate Bill NO.  _____

IN THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF ALASKA

THIRTIETH LEGISLATURE – FIRST SESSION

Sponsor(s):

A BILL

FOR AN ACT ENTITLED

“ALASKA CLIMATE CHANGE RESPONSE FUND ACT OF 2020: An act establishing the Alaska Climate Change Response Fund to finance the state’s overall preparedness for, and response to, the impacts of climate change in Alaska; and providing for effective dates.”

BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF ALASKA:

In recognition of the significant impacts, threats, and costs due to climate change in Alaska; including impacts and costs to public and private infrastructure, including transportation (roads, airstrips, railroads, ports and harbors, pipelines, resource extraction facilities), buildings, shoreline protection, water and sanitation systems, and defense facilities; impacts to health and culture, including disease vectors, subsistence, community integrity, physical health, mental health, and public safety; a continuing reduction of the Alaska cryosphere (sea ice, permafrost, glaciers); impacts to natural systems including marine, freshwater, and terrestrial ecosystems, forests, fisheries (including ocean acidification), and wildlife; and impacts to all sectors of the Alaska economy, including oil & gas, fisheries, forestry, mineral development, transportation, and agriculture:

Section 1.

            (a) There is established an Alaska Climate Change Response Fund (the “Fund”), which shall derive revenue from a 10 cents ($0.10) per-barrel-equivalent assessment on all hydrocarbons produced in Alaska (oil, natural gas, and coal).  The Fund shall be assessed and collected by the Alaska Department of Revenue.

            (b) The Fund shall be managed by the Alaska Climate Change Sub-Cabinet, established by Administrative Order No. 238 on September 14, 2007 to advise the Office of the Governor on the preparation and implementation of an Alaska Climate Change Strategy. The Climate Change Sub-Cabinet consists of the commissioners of the Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development; Department of Environmental Conservation; Department of Natural Resources; Department of Fish and Game; and Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

            (c) The Fund shall be used solely in support of state efforts to further develop and implement the Alaska Climate Change Strategy, and other efforts deemed necessary and appropriate to achieve the goals of the Alaska Climate Change Sub-Cabinet and the Alaska Climate Change Strategy.  The Fund shall be available for use by all state agencies and non-governmental institutions as appropriate -- including Alaska Native tribal councils, ANCSA Corporations, municipalities, the Denali Commission, and the University of Alaska -- in collaborative efforts to assist rural and urban communities effectively respond to impacts of climate change; it shall commission research and technology development necessary to its mission; it shall formalize and expand Alaska’s liaison with other state and provincial governments in western North America with regard to mitigation and response to climate change; and it shall support interaction with national and international efforts to stabilize global climate.

            (d) The Alaska Climate Change Sub-Cabinet shall present an annual budget for appropriation of the Fund to the Legislature; and revenues collected into the Fund that are not expended in annual appropriations shall remain in the Fund, available for appropriation in subsequent years.

Section 2.  This act takes effect immediately upon passage and signature by the Governor.



Thursday, November 7, 2019

Alaska Oil & Gas Industry Emissions Fact Sheet

For Immediate Release  

Contacts: Ceal Smith, Alaska Institute for Climate and Energy, ceal at akclimateaction dot org
Kate Troll, Kate.Troll at gmail dot com

The mission of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (AOGCC) is:

To protect the public interest in exploration and development of Alaska's valuable oil, gas, and geothermal resources through the application of conservation practices designed to ensure greater ultimate recovery and the protection of health, safety, fresh ground waters and the rights of all owners to recover their share of the resource.

According to Alaska’s 2015 Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report[1], more than half of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions are generated by the oil and gas industry. By statute, the state considers any non-emergency release of oil and gas, usually in the form of venting or flaring, in excess of one hour as potential “waste”. Thus, better enforcement of Alaska’s oil and gas waste rules has long been viewed as Alaska’s “low hanging fruit” for reducing the states greenhouse gas emissions.

In the fall of 2018 Kate Troll filed a request for hearing with the AOGCC to urge the Commission to “fully enforce and strengthen existing statutes requiring Alaska’s oil and gas industry to stop all non-emergency venting and flaring from Alaska oil and gas wells”, on behalf of more than 400 Alaskan petitioners[2].  The hearing was granted on Dec 18, 2018.

Ms. Troll was joined in testimony by Lois Epstein with The Wilderness Society, Alaska and Ceal Smith with the Alaska Climate Action Network. In preparation for the hearing, Smith reviewed industry data obtained by AOGCC and identified 1,468 gas releases greater than 1 hour, in potential violation of Alaska’s waste rules[3],[4].

She and Ms. Troll explicitly asked the commissioners for an explanation of this large number of releases and to provide evidence of enforcement action. In their written response[5], Commissioners Foerster and Seamount dismissed their concerns and failed to address the 1,468 releases.  Instead they claimed the “root concern” of the parties requesting the hearing was climate change and that the agency had “no authority to act regarding that subject matter.”

The Commissioners response was in direct contradiction to Kate Troll’s testimony, that explicitly stated she was not asking the Commission to address climate change:  

To start I want you to know that while the topic of climate change will enter this hearing, we are not asking you to enlarge your mission.  We do not seek mission creep, we merely ask that you urgently and competently enforce AS. 31.05.095 which prohibits the waste of oil and gas and regulation 20 ACC 25.235 (b) which defines waste as gas released, burned or permitted to escape into the air. Because that gas which escapes is mostly methane, a greenhouse gas about 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide over the long-term and almost 90 times more potent over the short-term, the matter of climate change enlarges the public interest behind your existing mission. In other word, it’s not mission creep we seek but mission urgency. 

In response to the AOGCC failure to address substantive issues raised during the Dec 18 hearing, three citizen groups; the Alaska Institute for Climate & Energy, Ground Truth Trekking and Alaska Community Action On Toxics filed a new request for a hearing[6] with the AOGCC on March 20, 2019 specifically lodging a complaint of waste.  Eleven months later, they have still not received a response.

 In the interim, the group filed an information request with AOGCC in order to investigate the facts behind the releases.  Preliminary findings show that between January 2012 and October 2018 industry flared or vented, on average 3,240,000 Mcf (thousand cubic feet) of gas per year.  BP and Hilcorp were the biggest emitters. BP vented or flared 2,300,000 Mcf per year on average from its large North Slope operations and Hilcorp (with far fewer wells and infrastructure) vented or flared 400,000 Mcf per year on average between 2012 and 2019 (see Figure 1).

    Figure 1. Annual average industry emissions reported to AOGCC, Feb 2012-Oct 2019 

But that’s not the full story. A 2019, the US Department of Energy (DoE), Office of Oil & Natural Gas Regulations reported far higher levels of venting and flaring in Alaska, between 42% and 74% higher than industry reported to the AOGCC between 2013-2018[8] (see Table 1 and Figure 2 below).

Despite several calls to State and Federal agencies, we’ve been unable to get an explanation for the significant gap between the DoE and AOGCC reports. These discrepancies, and the AOGCC’s failure to address citizen concerns, raise far more questions than they answer.  


Table 1. US Department of Energy Alaska Natural Gas Flaring and Venting Regulations, May 2019

As a recent New York Time's story indicates[10] excessive flaring and venting are continuing unabated by major oil companies that also operate in Alaska. Our analysis and interaction with AOGCC indicate the same is happening here. Companies are burning massive amounts of natural gas unabated and with little to no oversight or enforcement whilst aggressively seeking to rollback bonding and regulatory requirements[11].  


Figure 2. Comparison of DoE and AOGCC gas vent and flare reports

References: 

 [1] Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventory, https://dec.alaska.gov/air/anpms/projects-reports/greenhouse-gas-inventory
[4] Gas released, burned or permitted to escape into the air constitutes waste: 20 AAC 25.235(b), and waste of oil and gas in the state is prohibited: Sec. 31.05.095.
[6] As required under AS 31.05.060(a)
[7] Graphic created by Brentwood Higman, PhD, Ground Truth Alaska.
[8] US Department of Energy, Office of Oil & Natural Gas Regulations, Alaska Natural Gas Flaring and Venting Regulations, May 2019, https://www.energy.gov/sites/prod/files/2019/08/f66/Alaska.pdf
[9] Ibid.
[10] Hiroko Tabuchi, New York Times, “Despite Their Promises, Giant Energy Companies Burn Away Vast Amounts of Natural Gas”, October 16, 2019.
[11] Proposed repeal of regulations, https://www.commerce.alaska.gov/web/aogcc/Home.aspx

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Senate Dems urge Dunleavy to include oil tax reform in special session

In the midst of the worst budget battle in Alaska's history, Senate Democrats delivered a letter urging Governor Dunleavy to put oil tax reform, including Senate Bill 14, on the table for the second special session set to resume this afternoon, July 18th.

The press release states:

Senate Democrats are proposing Governor Dunleavy add Senate Bill 14 to the call, but are also open to other proposals from the Administration to revise Alaska’s oil tax structure to ensure the policy to serve the people’s maximum benefit. Alaska is facing massive budget reductions, loss of services, and an economic recession. Lawmakers have received an unprecedented amount of emails, phone calls, and messages to right the economy and reverse budget reductions to provide stability for the state.   

Alaskans for Oil Tax Credit Repeal/Yes on SB14 has been at the forefront of calling for oil tax reform, including a floor vote on SB14, since the beginning of the 2019 legislative session.  "SB21 has failed Alaskans and set the stage for this so-called fiscal crisis. Eliminating the $1.2 billion oil production tax credit, as SB14 would do, is the most common sense solution to balancing the state's budget that still allows for a full Permanent Fund Dividend while preserving education and public service programs that are vital to Alaska's well-being and future.  We commend the Senate for their courage and initiative", said Ceal Smith, one of the groups organizers.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

It’s not PFD vs STATE. It's BIG OIL GREED vs ALASKANS

In Alaska, the people own the natural resources. Unlike other states, Article 8 of our Constitution requires that those resources, including oil and gas, be used wisely for "the maximum benefit of its people".  Royalties from non-renewable oil and gas sales are collected and part of the earnings redistributed to Alaskans in the form of a Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD) according to a specific formula.

In Alaska, the cost of living is quite high.  Many middle and low income earners rely on the annual PFD to cover annual expenses not otherwise covered by other income sources.

In fact the PFD lifts many Alaskans out of poverty.  In 2015, an Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) study found that PFD's helped 25,000 Alaskans avoid poverty.  That's 1 out of every 33 Alaskans. Child poverty rates have grown a staggering 50% since 1990.  The PFD makes life tangibly better for children, rural families,  seniors, the disabled and many others. 

[Check out Senator Bill Wielechowski's excellent talk on the history of the PFD here.]



Last year, "restore our PFD" became the battle cry for Governor Dunleavy's election campaign.  Now his foolhardy and dangerous veto cuts have sparked a justifiable backlash.  In some circles, that backlash is wrongfully aimed at the PFD.  

Neither Dunleavy or GOP members of the legislature want to talk about it, but Big Oil should be the real target.   Contrary to the usual story, they've been stealing from Alaskans, corrupting our politics and dumping the true cost of doing business on us for more than 40 years.  And it's about to get worse.

To start with, the oil and gas industry is taking more and giving less now than at any time in Alaska's history.  This year alone, industry is writing off $1.2 billion in per barrel oil production tax credits, from it's payments due to the state.

Climate warming is driven by greenhouse gases emitted mostly from burning fossil-fuels. This week Alaska shattered every temperature record on the books.  More than 150 wildfires are burning and there's no immediate relief in sight.  These extreme temperatures are accelerating sea ice melt, permafrost thaw and ocean acidification; three dangerous tipping points, that if crossed, could result in run-away climate disruption that, no matter how fast we cut greenhouse emissions, may not be stoppable.   

The cost to Alaskan's of fossil fuel combustion-driven climate disruption; hundreds of coastal communities facing relocation, collapsing fisheries, wildlife, ecosystems, infrastructure, health and safety is incalculable and perhaps subject for another blog.

The point to be made here is this:  Alaskans need to come together to build a statewide bipartisan movement to end fossil fuel subsidies and protect the Permanent Fund Dividend.  While the greed expressed by Dunleavy and his defenders is truly reprehensible, let's not vilify low-mid income families who rely on the PFD to make ends meet and rise out of poverty.

It’s not PFD vs STATE. It’s BIG OIL GREED vs ALASKANS. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Alaska's State of Emergency: an open letter to the legislature

To members of the Alaska legislature:

Governor Dunleavy’s veto budget cuts are aimed at the heart and soul of Alaska.   Many experts agree, if enacted, they will deal a blow that is not only unconstitutional, but from which the state will likely never recover.  Alaskans across the state are stunned, shocked and mortified by the cruelty and short-sightedness of Dunleavy’s veto cuts.  This is not who we are, and it could not have come at a worse time.   

Some of you may think this is a good thing; that a robust and functioning government and education system is unnecessary to civil society; that the Climate Emergency is not real.  Such thinking does not hold up to the facts.  It’s profoundly irresponsible, dangerous and ignorant.  

One fact that is irrefutable is that climate disruption is accelerating[1],[2],[3].  As members of the Alaska Climate Action Network (AKCAN!), a statewide grassroots organization of more than 1300 Alaskans deeply concerned about climate disruption, we are acutely aware of how vital robust science, research and education programs are to the future survival of our state, nation and planet.  As our nation’s only Arctic state, Alaska is on the front lines of that change and the University of Alaska is at the center of national and global climate change research and education.   The proposed 41% reduction in funding would devastate vital programs, endanger Alaska’s frontline communities and Arctic research in every corner of America and beyond[4].

The Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy (ACCAP) is the primary academic center in our nation doing Arctic research, including critical social science research that supports the needs of frontline communities struggling with the rapid and profound effects of climate change; coastal erosion, permafrost thaw, changing sea ice, ocean warming and acidification, increasing risk of infectious diseases, and the destruction of traditional livelihoods and ways of life. Without a dedicated home, research on these life-threatening issues will fragment or cease to exist, leaving Alaskans in the dark about the threats of climate change and science-based solutions and causing untold suffering and death.  And the loss of research would ripple through the entire U.S. Arctic research community and beyond.

The University of Alaska’s International Arctic Research Center (IARC) is among the world’s premier Arctic science institutes, with an unusual breadth of disciplines and ability to conduct interdisciplinary research collaboration between Arctic nations.  Disrupting these collaborative research efforts would fragment the daily connections forged by researchers here and across the global network of scientists studying the Arctic.
The university is responsible, in part, for maintaining four sites that are part of Long-Term Ecological Research program run by the federal government. Those sites provide a continuous look at key pieces of the Arctic ecosystem and the impacts of climate change, including changes to fire season, the disappearance of sea ice, and changes to the base of the ocean food chain that could impact the state’s fisheries. Any interruption or downgrade in monitoring at those sites would hamper our understanding of the changes gripping the region, setting research back by decades and further endangering Arctic communities.  

A thriving University system is vital to a healthy state economy.  According to the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation[5], the University of Alaska system provides $714 million directly and $402 million indirectly to the statewide economy.  Studies show that 68% of two-year graduates and 42% of four-year graduates from University of Alaska remain in the state to meet the workforce needs of Alaska businesses.  University of Alaska-Anchorage alone generated $40.2 million in research dollars in fiscal year 2016.  The loss of these revenue sources and the talented workforce to sustain business could push Alaska into economic collapse.   

There is an easy solution that gets at the duel problems of climate change and the state’s fiscal shortfall: removal of the per barrel oil production tax credit, currently costing Alaskans at least $1.2 billion annually in payments to profitable oil companies.  There is absolutely no justification for subsidizing a thriving oil industry that continues to profit from accelerating climate change harming our state in so many ways.  Adoption of Senate Bill 14 or its equivalent action to remove unnecessary and egregious fossil fuel subsidies, would allow us to balance the budget with full University and education funding while moving our state firmly into a decarbonized future.    

In closing; we implore you to override Dunleavy’s veto cuts, including the proposed 41% cut to the University of Alaska, and use the power of your office to eliminate the existing per barrel oil production tax credit, thus freeing up the funds needed to fulfill State Constitutional requirements to fund education, protect Alaskans from harm and avoid an irreversible descent into economic collapse.   

No less than our future depends on it. 


Saturday, May 18, 2019

The Municipality of Anchorage Climate Action Plan: The Right Step, Right Now


Tom Benson of the Heartland Institute posted a blog entry dated May 16, 2019, intended to cast a pall over the Municipality of Anchorage Climate Action Plan[1].  Written by lobbyists rather than by scientists, it is filled with assumptions, inaccuracies, outdated figures, and misleading distractions from the issue at hand.  Allow us to set the record straight.

Please note that we are not merely providing a difference of opinion.  We are setting the record straight with the best science available.  In contrast to Mr. Benson’s piece, we offer dozens of endnotes to peer-reviewed, scientific studies.  Meanwhile, Mr. Benson’s argument is filled with reports from politically-motivated groups like the Manhattan Institute[2], American Action Forum[3], the Texas Public Policy Foundation[4], the Institute for Energy Research[5], and more.  Like Mr. Benson’s Heritage Institute, many of these groups are established and/or funded by the Koch Brothers for the purposes of enhancing their profits from the fossil fuel industry.  We observe that, if the Heartland case were strong, they would have no need to resort to politically-motivated sources.

With that prelude, we begin by presenting the scientific underpinnings for the Anchorage Climate Action Plan.

Scientific Agreement:  Human Emissions of Greenhouse Gases are Warming the World Dangerously

The scientific community has established a profound level of consensus[6], [7], [8], [9], [10], [11],  that the world is warming[12] due to the human emissions of greenhouse gases[13], [14] such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and others[15].  The primary source of these gases is the burning of fossil fuels, although agricultural practices also contribute[16].  Since the Industrial Revolution began, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen approximately 48%[17], and global average surface temperatures have risen approximately 1 degree Celsius[18] in response[19].  In addition to the global temperature records from thermometers[20], [21], and satellites[22], more than 20,000 datasets in the natural world confirm the warming trend[23].

Scientists are clear that the warming is due to human activity.  Many studies[24], [25], [26], [27] show that human emissions of greenhouse gases are responsible for all or nearly all the observed warming since the 1970s.

Additionally, scientists have determined that the overall impact of current and anticipated warming is negative.  Scientists state that unchecked warming will inflict tens of trillions of dollars of damage to the economy[28], cause human health problems[29] including millions of premature deaths[30], force hundreds of millions of people to relocate[31], cause irreversible harm to ecological frameworks around the world[32], threaten an extinction cascade[33], and much more.  The differences between 1.5 degree C warming and 2.0 degree C warming are stark, and worse still are the results of 3.0 or more degree C warming[34].  Taking all effects into account, scientists declare this climate instability will be very harmful.

This harm is avoidable.  Because scientists have identified the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming, we can reduce, and ultimately end, those emissions.  This will mean finding energy efficiency where possible, and it will require ramping up the use of clean energy while ramping down the use of fossil fuel energy.  The technological solutions are already market-ready, and the political solutions are known.  It is incumbent on this generation to initiate the changes necessary to protect future generations.

It is imperative that Alaska becomes a leader in reducing emissions reductions.  Although every region matters, Alaska’s high per capita emissions give us more opportunity - and more responsibility - to affect change.  Indeed, if Alaska were a country, it would lead the world in greenhouse gas emissions per capita[35],[36].  In fact, Alaska emits more greenhouse gas than does Switzerland[37], even though Switzerland has ten times our population.

The climate action plan for the Municipality of Anchorage adopts the United Nations goal of doing our part to keep global warming “well below 2.0 degrees Celsius”[38] as measured against pre-industrial temperatures.  While this is an aggressive goal, it also provides many benefits.  In addition to avoiding the harms acknowledged above, Anchorage can also avoid tens of billions of dollars for fuel costs over the next few decades.  Further, the renewable energy industry provides more jobs per kilowatt-hour than fossil fuel industry does[39].

With the scientific understanding firmly established, then, we now turn to some of the more major mistakes within the Heartland opinion piece.

Price on Carbon

The Heartland piece spends a fair bit of time on the assumption that the Municipality of Anchorage Climate Action Plan will establish, in their words, a “carbon tax.”  This is based on a single phrase in the plan, calling on Anchorage to “evaluate a carbon pricing mechanism to account for the externalities
of fossil fuels.”  As far as the Climate Action Plan is concerned, this is but one arrow in a quiver holding more than 130. 

To clarify this particular arrow, the plan calls for an evaluation of a carbon pricing mechanism.  There are local considerations that need to be taken into account during that evaluation, of which Mr. Benson appears uninformed, such as our local tax cap.  But Mr. Benson’s attack on the plan teeter on his assumption that Anchorage will implement a carbon tax without any regard for its effect on the poor.  Had he been better informed, he would realize that considerations of fairness and equity permeated every plank in the plan, as directed explicitly from the outset of the process.

So if a carbon pricing mechanism is implemented, it will not be the bludgeon that Mr. Benson says he fears.  If implemented, it would most likely be accompanied by a dividend program.  This would ensure that (a) the poor are not hit hardest, (b) the size of our municipal government would not grow, and (c) no net money is taken out of the economy.  In this vision, carbon pricing would be similar to the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act in the US House of Representatives this year, and which was also before the US Senate last session.

Curiously, Mr. Benson himself quotes a study that affirms the value of such a pricing mechanism.  In its conclusions, it states, “Fourth, a carbon price is far more effective in reducing carbon emissions precisely because it is not biased toward any one technology but rewards any technology that reduces emissions at a reasonable cost.” [40]

A carbon pricing mechanism can be very effective, and nearly unnoticed by the public.  Indeed, British Columbia had such a mechanism in place for years, and though most of their public was unaware of it[41], the territory still led Canada in both emissions reductions and economic growth[42].

Renewable Portfolio Standard

A second arrow of more than 130 in the quiver of the Municipality of Anchorage Climate Action Plan is to advocate for a minimum percentage of electricity coming from renewable sources along the Alaska Railbelt.  As such, this would be a region wide or statewide effort largely dependent on the Regulatory Commission of Alaska. 

Mr. Benson points to a 2019 study by Greenstone and Nath[43] that found states with Renewable Portfolio Standards saw an increase in retail electricity prices of 1.3 cents and 2.0 cents per kilowatt-hour after seven and twelve years, respectively.  If that were to hold true for the Alaska Railbelt, that would amount to a 0.9% annual increase, which is slower than the rate of inflation.  While preliminary numbers do not show a particular need for concern, the Climate Action Plan under consideration does not propose to establish such a policy without further study and discussion, nor is it even able to do so because the Alaska Railbelt is not under the jurisdiction of the Municipality of Anchorage.

It is noteworthy that Alaska is a world leader in renewable energy capacity.  Helpfully, much of that capacity is located along the Railbelt where it can readily be added to the electricity mix.  It is also noteworthy that states like Texas have lowered their electricity bills while increasing the percentage of their electricity from renewables[44], and that four states already generate more than 30% of their electricity from renewables[45], with Kansas and Iowa at nearly 40%[46].   

With its high electricity costs and abundant renewable energy sources, Alaska has plenty of room to improve the percentage of renewables in our electricity mix, which would result in more local employment than relying nearly exclusively fossil fuels.  In fact, a recent study concluded that converting all fossil fuel energy in the US to renewable energy by 2050 would provide a net gain of 2 million American jobs, save every American a net $260 per year in energy costs, save Americans $600 billion per year in health care costs (4% of US GDP), eliminate 62,000 premature deaths in the US each year from air pollution, and avoid $3.3 trillion of global warming costs per year to the world from US emissions[47].   

Many studies have arrived at similar conclusions about the economic viability of switching all or nearly all of US electricity to renewables while maintaining electricity costs at rates similar, or even lower than today’s[48], [49], [50], [51].  Clearly, a transition to clean energy is not to be feared; we should embrace a more energy efficient, cleaner and more affordable energy future. 

Emissions Trends

One of the more egregious errors Mr. Benson makes is in conflating greenhouse gases with carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, particulate matter, and sulfur dioxide.  The latter six are closely tied to human health but are not significant contributors to greenhouse gas warming.  Importantly, Mr. Benson glosses over this crucial distinction when he says “emissions” have dropped substantially.  The fact is, US “greenhouse gas emissions” have risen, even despite the fact that we have exported our pollution to other countries as factories moved overseas. 

When he refers to EPA data, that forces Mr. Benson closer to the truth, but in his efforts to show US emissions are dropping, he fails to mention that US greenhouse gas emissions are essentially unchanged over the past 6 years[52].  Certainly those emissions decreased during our recent recession.  Since then, however, greenhouse gas emissions would have risen again if it weren’t for the rise of clean energy.  Despite Mr. Benson’s innuendo to the contrary, greenhouse gas emissions remain a problem to be solved.

Economic Impact

Mr. Benson implies that, because Alaska has a high cost of energy, we should continue with business as usual.  However, that high cost has meant that Alaska communities can find cost relief through renewable energy[53].  In Anchorage, for example, our cheapest electricity comes from hydroelectric. 

Mr. Benson completely disregards the bulk of the Municipality of Anchorage Climate Action Plan.  He sidesteps its action items that would improve energy efficiency across many sectors, which is by far the most cost-effective way to reduce emissions.  He ignores the call for allowing electricity customers to voluntarily request a minimum percentage of their electricity from renewables at an appropriate rate.  He doesn’t mention the increased system efficiency that would result from an Independent System Operator of the Alaska Railbelt electricity grid. 

Further, we have already established that the economic benefits of switching include higher employment.  Moreover, and completely unaddressed in the Heartland piece, the world must move away from fossil fuels because of the stunning economic harm they threaten over the long term.  In a peer-reviewed study, Economist Marshall Burke found that, if greenhouse gas emissions are allowed to continue rising, world GDP in the year 2100 will be about 23% less than in a world without global warming.  If our ancestors had done that to us, the world would now make $17 trillion less per year.  What will our descendants think of us if we knowingly inflict that on them?

Conclusion

The Municipality of Anchorage Climate Action Plan is far from limited to the two items addressed in the Heartland opinion piece.  It is robust, presenting more than 130 opportunities to realize significant improvements in our greenhouse gas emissions.

It is imperative that the whole world participate in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  There is no city in the world that has even 1% of the world’s population, so we must all contribute to the solution.  Indeed, since Alaskans emit so much more greenhouse gas per capita than nearly anyone else, we have that much more responsibility—and that much more opportunity—to make a real difference.

This is the issue by which future generations will judge us.  Will we falter?  Will we give up before we even try?  Or shall we again prove to be the home of the brave? 

We’ve always risen to meet our challenges – and defeat them.  This can be our finest hour.  Let us rise up with courage and integrity.  Let us dust off our common values, and march forward together with conviction into a sustainable world for our grandchildren.

Alaska Climate Action Network
AK CAN!
Ceal Smith, President
Scott Gruhn, Co-Director



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