Resource development is in Alaska’s DNA

Walker administration urges congress to open non-wilderness area of ANWR to oil, gas exploration

Editor’s note: Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott testified at a congressional hearing in Washington on Nov. 2 in support of opening a section in the non-wilderness area of ANWR to oil and gas exploration and development.  Here is a portion of the governor’s testimony.

Alaska is different. Resource development is in Alaska’s DNA. Long before statehood, Alaska Natives have lived in harmony with the land for more than 10,000 years. Because of the State’s harsh climate and extreme terrain, the Alaska Native people have perfected the art of subsistence and responsible management of the land and its resources. They know when herds are becoming too thin, or when fish stocks need time to recover. The wisdom and insight of this traditional knowledge stays with us today as we work to utilize the wealth and value of our natural resources to set our state on a sustainable path to the future.

Planning for Alaska’s future must be rooted in our past – and the unique agreement and vision that was ratified when our State was admitted to the United States. Alaska has been, since its founding, a natural resource and resource development state. From our salmon fisheries and beautifully scenic viewscapes to our immense oil, gas, and mineral potential and everything in between, we are a place where the natural environment and its resources underpin Alaskans’ lives and livelihoods. The founding documents of Alaska – the Statehood Compact and the Alaska Constitution – make this abundantly clear. I can confirm that when I was a young man these ideas were on everyone’s lips and in everyone’s heads leading up to 1959 when we became the 49th state.

The fight for Alaska statehood revolved almost exclusively around the question of whether Alaska could do just that – manage the bountiful natural resources contained within her massive borders to make a future for Alaskans. The potential of the State to sustain its economy through resource development was boosted by the significant oil discoveries on the Kenai Peninsula at Swanson River in the late 1950s that pushed Alaska towards achieving statehood in 1959.

The Statehood Compact squarely addressed Alaska’s resource potential and the need for it to be both developed and protected to sustain the new state. It endowed Alaska and Alaskans with ample land ownership to build an independent, reliable economy and granted the state authority to manage and perpetuate the fish and game stocks that had suffered under federal management.

Furthermore, it vested the rights and thus revenue associated with this land with the people of Alaska, allowing the public to benefit from the prodigious natural resources of Alaska for the long term. To increase state and federal alignment, even portions of the revenue from development on federal land were dedicated to support the State and its

Mineral rights

Alaska is the only state in the union that cannot sell its mineral rights in the ground. That restriction is set forth in the Statehood Act and has a reversion clause that if Alaska did ever sell resources in the ground, that land would revert back to the Federal government.

This restriction ensures that Alaskans can live for generations from the royalty revenues from the responsible development of those in-ground resources rather than one-time purchase payments. That was the offer at statehood and Alaska accepted that offer. What we never anticipated was that we would be denied access to those life-sustaining resources on federal lands for responsible development.

The government of Alaska, in turn, was built on the premise that sustainable, long-term development would be the basis of our independent economy. The same direction to maintain ownership but utilize the resources of Alaska for Alaskans was written directly into our Constitution.

Lax federal policy in the Territory of Alaska, and the view that many western states had suffered from their resources being sold off and exploited for short term returns marked Alaskans’ decision to enshrine one of the most important, and singularly unique, provisions in the Alaska Constitution: that the natural resources of the state should be developed and managed for the maximum benefit of the people. When, nearly a decade later North America’s largest oil field at Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope was discovered in 1967, the resource development foundation laid in these documents allowed the State to flourish and thrive.

Alaska’s delegate to the U.S. Congress, Bob Bartlett, devoted his keynote speech at the Alaska constitutional convention to the role of resource development in Alaska’s future: “… fifty years from now, the people of Alaska may very well judge the product of this Convention not by the decisions taken upon issues like local government, apportionment, and the structure and powers of the three branches of government, but rather by the decision taken upon the vital issue of resources policy.”

I am proud to say that the 50 years Delegate Bartlett envisioned saw both success for our state and many lessons learned, and it is necessary that I, as elected leader of Alaska, look towards the next 50 years of successful resource development policy.

Creation of ANWR

The Arctic National Wildlife Range was withdrawn by President Dwight Eisenhower shortly before statehood, formally created in 1960, and enlarged into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) we know today during the development of the Alaska National Interests Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980.

In the 1970s as Congress deliberated this “grand compromise” legislation, the immense productivity of the state lands on the North Slope – containing the Prudhoe Bay field and the billions and billions of barrels of oil that have now been produced – was starting to be understood.

In light of the potential for some of the lands just to the east of Prudhoe Bay to contain similar petroleum reserves, Congress made a specific compromise in ANILCA for a small portion of the Refuge close to these areas – the Coastal Plain, comprising only 8 percent of the total refuge – would be scientifically studied for its petroleum potential, environmental qualities, and the possibility of conducting safe development. These provisions are found in Section 1002 of ANILCA, giving rise to the use of the term “1002 Area” to describe the Coastal Plain.

When the Department of the Interior conducted the initial studies required by ANILCA, it recommended Congress adopt a full oil and gas-leasing program for the 1002 Area. Since that time the footprint of development has dramatically shrunk, the environmental standards to prevent spills and protect wildlife have improved, and new technology allows wells to reach further than ever underground.

Today, after 50 years of successful and safe development on the state lands to the West, and decades of advancement in both oil and gas technology and environmental mitigation measures, it is time that the Congress act to honor the longstanding promise in these areas available for the benefit of Alaska, the country, and the world.

Of the almost 20,000,000-acre Refuge, the Coastal Plain contains 1.5 million acres. A full field development on par with current projects happening to the west of the 1002 Area on state lands would see only a few thousand acres of surface footprint for development at most.

This would be approximately 0.1 percent of the Coastal Plain, and .01 percent of the overall area of the Refuge. For reference, ANWR is roughly the size of South Carolina, the Coastal Plain is roughly the size of Delaware, and the likely development footprint is the same order of magnitude as a University campus such as the University of Delaware.

It is this small area of the refuge that must be explored and developed for the benefit of our state and country. Using the currently available exploration technology that leaves almost no lasting impact of any kind, a limited development could be designed that provides billions of dollars to the American people, creates jobs across the country, and significantly improves our national security and international influence while fully protecting the wildlife and environment of the Coastal Plain.