Monday, March 20, 2023
March 20, 2023

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Westneat: Cantwell helps lead Alaska into green future


Having a pretty good week: Wild salmon and centuries-old cedars. Having a great week: Washington’s junior U.S. senator, Maria Cantwell. Having an identity crisis: Alaska.

Cantwell, along with environmentalists, tribes and fishing interests, recently won some huge victories for the planet up north.

First they won a three-decade-long war over old-growth logging — for now — when the Biden administration barred timber road-building in America’s largest national forest, the Tongass, in southeast Alaska.

Then, the Environmental Protection Agency blocked the proposed Pebble Mine. It would have been the biggest open-pit mine ever in North America, upstream of Bristol Bay, which is home to the largest wild sockeye run.

“No company will ever be able to stick a mine on top of some of the best salmon habitat in the world,” Cantwell crowed in a floor speech Tuesday to the U.S. Senate. Not so sure about that — the lawyers and judges still get their say.

Cantwell though, who has slogged away to protect the Tongass for more than 20 years, and Bristol Bay for more than 10, deserves this victory lap.

It’s interesting, too, because increasingly it seems that Alaska, one of America’s final frontiers for the old ways of heavy resource extraction, is slowly digesting the hard truth that it needs to change. In a state where the economy and state budget remain heavily pegged to oil and gas, it’s dawning even on the “drill, baby, drill” types that they need a new pitch.

When the Donald Trump administration held a “fire sale” for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the last kamikaze days of that presidency, the sale was a bust. “Alaska’s motto of ‘North to the Future’ should be re-examined, because I don’t think it has much meaning now,” a retired BP oil executive fumed after the ANWR sales went kaput.

With oil drilling waning, old-growth logging passé and big mining blocked, Alaska’s Trumpy governor has gone whole hog into carbon.

“Now, Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy wants the state to make money by leaving trees standing, and by pumping carbon emissions back into the ground,” writes the Alaska Beacon.

The trees part would involve letting forests go uncut for a century, in exchange for “carbon credits” that can be sold to companies to offset global warming emissions. The second part is iffier — to lease underground caverns, left from past oil drilling, to be used for storing captured carbon.

The industry of injecting CO2 underground is new, but it now has a “gold rush” feel to it because the big climate change bill Congress passed last year dramatically raised the tax incentives companies can get for it.

Alaska does know its gold rushes. Maybe 50 years on, after the state was transformed by black gold in the wild pipeline frenzy of the 1970s, it could now replay all that in reverse, in a green rush of workers flocking there.

Oil probably isn’t going down that easy. But I’m flagging this talk from up north anyway, because something seems to be shifting.

Cantwell’s political career almost perfectly overlaps with the aging arc of Alaska’s old economies. For more than 20 years now she’s led filibusters or other efforts against oil drilling in ANWR, against old-growth logging in the state’s vast coastal rainforests, and now against the nation’s most enormous mine.

If even Alaska’s politicians are suddenly eager for things like carbon sequestration and credits, then maybe the long-talked-about shift toward a cleaner economy really is finally starting to happen?

No need to change the state motto, it can still be “North to the Future.” It’s just that, as the climate scientists have been warning, the future isn’t what it used to be.