Saturday, October 17, 2015

Frustrated Outburst Points to Alaska’s Post-Pipeline Future

One of the surest signs of an enterprise in long-term decline is when it starts to refer to its friends and supporters as enemies. A sociopath, of course, struggles perpetually to understand the distinction between friend and enemy, but most of us arrive at this confusion only after years of hard-fought disappointments. It happens, that is, when we are working against nature, trying to reach a goal dictated by ego but not easily found in the possibilities of the situation.

This is why it is so distressing to see the reactions of officials in Alaska yesterday to three minor procedural setbacks in offshore oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean. To put the day in context, it is important to understand how minor these setbacks are. Two of them were oil leases that will expire on schedule instead of being extended. The two oil companies in question had, in ten years, shown no inclination of drilling for oil in the leases they paid for. Three extra years would not have changed anything — the leases would still have expired without so much as a visit from the oil companies that nominally owned them. The third setback was the Interior Department canceling two years of oil lease auctions. The auctions would have failed anyway, after not a single oil company expressed interest in bidding. If the auctions had gone ahead and leases been purchased by speculators, it would have been a great deal of wasted motion that still wouldn’t have resulted in any drilling. For deeper context, see FuelFix:

These three non-events drew an alarmingly violent reaction from Alaskan officials. One characterized the White House as the sworn enemy of fossil fuels. In reality the White House is a staunch supporter of fossil fuels and has subsidized the sector more than any other corner of the economy. Another official yesterday hinted that Alaska might take over a national park that is at issue by military force. That is something that obviously won’t happen, but the fighting words are nevertheless a sign of something. Other comments were disturbing in similar ways — putting the blame for the oil industry’s failings on the native people of Alaska, on defeatist attitudes — on anything but the real problems, the lack of oil in the ground and the low market price for oil this year.

This kind of thinking is the work of ego. When you’re convinced that you’re right and nature is wrong, you can seize on anything as an obstacle. If you drill for oil and find none, then the oil must be beyond the coastline, or beyond the national park boundary. The coastline and the administrative line become the imaginary enemies. Now, it seems, the government that subsidizes the effort and the workers who operate the oilfields, or those who don’t want to work in the oilfields, are also the enemies. But this phase of lashing out can’t sustain itself. The only things that will keep Alaska going in its current form are more oil in the ground and higher market prices — forces of nature that Alaska, despite the bluster, has little ability to influence.

If the situation is as dire as yesterday’s outburst implies, we can expect the fundamental character of Alaska to evolve over the next ten years as unemployed and underpaid workers leave to seek opportunities in places where the economy is sunnier. Farther in the future, someday the pipeline will fail and with hardly any oil flowing, there won’t be the money to patch it up again. With a warming climate, my guess is that agriculture in the panhandle will at some point overshadow other economic activities in Alaska, with the capital Juneau becoming the center of the state again. These are changes that are almost unimaginable at this point, and there are few historical parallels that help explain what a post-pipeline Alaska will look like. It is important to remember, though, that there was an Alaska before the pipeline. The history of extraction, whether of oil or something else, is that it rarely lasts much longer than a lifetime before the underground resource is depleted, and there is nothing at this point to say that Alaska will be the exception.