Tuesday, May 30, 2017

It's time for Alaska to reckon with the end of fossil fuel era.

Interior Secretary Zinke’s recent tour of Alaska and the filing of a permit to drill “a giant area in the Susitna Basin[1]” are just the latest news sparking debate about Alaska’s energy future.

25 MW Eva Creek Wind, Alaska biggest wind project, Healy, AK
What is not news is that our climate is rapidly warming [2] and Alaska's Arctic twice as fast as the global average [3].  Or the piles of climate science studies that say we must curtail burning fossil fuels by 2050 to avoid catastrophic warming [4].  Or that much of the world is committed to sharp reductions in fossil fuel use [5].

None of this will change even with the Trump administration renegeing on the Paris Agreement [6] or attempts to open every corner of the earth to oil and gas drilling.

Even if climate change wasn't biting us, Alaska would do well to acknowledge the shift in global energy markets that is signaling an end to the fossil fuel era.  According to the International Energy Agency, more than 50% of all new net electricity generation was from renewable sources in 2015 [7].  That's still Just a fraction of our total energy output but renewables are growing exponentially and expected to explode in the mid 2030’s. Solar and wind are now cheaper [8] and support more jobs [9] than coal, gas and oil globally. Transportation will be largely electrified by 2030 [10]. Many towns and even countries have 100% renewable energy targets, including some major US cities [10b].

The best move Alaska could make would be to sell its remaining known conventional gas from Pt. Thompson to emerging low-carbon energy markets and leave the rest in the ground.  California [11] and the European Union [12] cap and trade programs pay premium carbon credits for low-carbon, conventional oil and gas.

New oil and gas fields require unconventional extraction methods like high-volume slick water hydraulic fracturing (aka "Fracking") that are expensive, toxic and carbon intensive.  According to industry, new fields require “five to 10 years before oil flows with permitting requirements, limited work seasons and other challenges” [13].  By the time oil and gas from these wells gets to market, renewables will be even more competitive as costs continue to plummet [14].

With foresight and a smart marketing strategy, proceeds from Alaskas low-carbon, conventional gas fields could be used to finance our 20-30 year transition to a sustainable, clean and diversified economy.   But first we must reckon with the reality that demand for fossil fuels will steadily shrink to a fraction of its current level by 2050.

Two key questions Alaskans deserve answers to from those pushing evermore fossil fuel development:

(1) how many $ billions in subsidies will we have to throw at the oil and gas industry to develop new fields in the Susitna Basin (or Cook Inlet, ANWR, NPR, Arctic Ocean or the North Slope), and

(2) given the high probability that demand for oil and gas is going to steadily shrink, can we afford the risk?

View this in Arctic Now
View this in Anchorage Dispatch News

By Ceal Smith.  Founder, Alaska Climate Action Network (AK CAN!) and Chair, Alaska Climate Caucus. 


[1] Alex DeMarban, State considers opening land near Talkeetna and Willow for oil and gas exploration, Alaska Daily News, May 30, 2015.
[2] The World Bank, Climate Change
[3] Alaska Climate Research Center
[4] McGlade & Ekins. The geographical distribution of fossil fuels unused when limiting global warming to 2degreesC. Nature.
[5] Wikipedia, Paris Agreement.
[6] Associated Press. Trump, EPA chief meet ahead of decision on climate change. May 30, 2017. 
[7] Adam Vaugn, The Guardian.
[8] Zachary Shahan. Low Costs of Solar Power & Wind Power Crush Coal, Crush Nuclear, & Beat Natural Gas. CleanTechnica, Dec. 25, 2016.
[9] Allen Hoffman.  For Job Creation, Investing In Renewable Energy Beats Fossil Fuels.  May 28, 2017.
[10] Tony Seba.  Clean Disruption (2015).
[10b).  Gilpin, Lyndsey.  Large or small, cities' 100% renewable energy pledges are more than symbolic . Southeast Energy News, May 22, 2017. 
[11] State of California Low Carbon Fuel Standard.
[12] The EU Emissions Trading System.
[13] Alex DeMarban, Caelus claims Arctic oil discovery that could rank among Alaska’s biggest ever.  Anchorage Daily News, Oct. 5, 2016
[14] International Renewable Energy Agency.  Dramatic Price Drops For Solar & Wind Electricity Set To Continue.  Jun. 15, 2016. 

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