Alaskans Wonder If Their State Is Exhibit or Target for Obama

Alaska pipeline

Photographer: Getty Images

When President Barack Obama visits Alaska this month, he’ll be greeted by politicians eager to show off their state’s vast wilderness and stirring scenery -- and skeptical of White House plans to protect those resources.

The state’s political leaders are anxious about whether Obama’s trip will coincide with new executive actions or regulations that could further strain an economy already rocked by slumping oil prices. Obama will become the first sitting president to tour the Alaskan Arctic, where oil companies are facing off against environmentalists over drilling.

The president “doesn’t go to anybody’s state and stay three days and not do something,” Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said at an Aug. 6 breakfast with Bloomberg editors and reporters in Washington.

“Many Alaskans have expressed anxiety and worry about further land use designations or ocean preserves that would permanently lock away resources critical to our state and local economies,” Representative Don Young, a Republican who has represented the state since 1973, said in an e-mail.

Obama has held up Alaska’s retreating glaciers and melting permafrost as evidence in his accelerating campaign to combat global warming. He hopes to clinch a deal to reduce world carbon emissions, blamed for rising temperatures, at a United Nations conference in Paris at the end of the year.

Arctic Conference

On arrival in Anchorage Aug. 31, the president will address a conference of foreign ministers, scientists and scholars from more than a dozen countries with interests in the Arctic region. The conference is intended to discuss “individual and collective action to address climate change in the Arctic” and “raise the visibility of climate impacts in the Arctic as a harbinger for the world,” according to the U.S. State Department, which is organizing the event.

Later in his trip, Obama will meet with residents of Alaska who the White House says have been hurt by climate change and other environmental perils. One stop is in Dillingham, a fishing town on Bristol Bay where native tribes say a salmon fishery is threatened by a proposed mine.

The White House has not said whether Obama will use the state as a backdrop to announce new environmental initiatives.

Alaska Governor Bill Walker met with Brian Deese, Obama’s top climate aide, and Jerry Abramson, the White House director of intergovernmental affairs, during a visit to the White House earlier this month. Walker said that while the group discussed possible locations the president might visit, neither aide mentioned any new policy proposals.

Marine Sanctuaries

Environmental groups including Greenpeace want the president to establish new marine reserves in the Bering Sea canyons. The group says fishing equipment has harmed fragile coral and sponge habitats, and that the government should do more to protect vulnerable animals in the area.

“This is the talk about town. ‘Oh my gosh, what’s he gonna do? Is he going to lock up ANWR?’” Murkowski said, using an acronym for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “’Is he going to put the Bering Sea canyons in as a marine protected sanctuary?’ We don’t have any idea.”

Obama has issued executive actions protecting more federal land and sea than any president in the last five decades. Last September, he broadened the Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument to nearly half a million square miles, over the objections of tuna fishermen operating in the region.

Economic Contribution

Any move in Alaska would see even more resistance. Fisheries in the region contribute an estimated $6.7 billion to the U.S. economy, and the fishing industry is the largest private employer in the state, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Some Democrats, including Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, have called on Obama to announce restrictions on oil and gas drilling in Arctic waters during his Alaska trip. The Interior Department granted a permit to Royal Dutch Shell Plc on Aug. 17 for an oil well in the Chukchi Sea northwest of Alaska.

The president may also renew a request that Congress designate more than 12 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- including the oil-rich coastal plain -- as protected wilderness. Republican congressional leaders haven’t acted on the proposal.

More than half the state’s budget and 90 percent of the government’s discretionary spending comes from oil revenue, which has rapidly declined thanks to a strengthening U.S. dollar and a glut of oil. Crude prices have slid nearly 60 percent in the last year. As a consequence, Alaska’s government faces an estimated $3.5 billion deficit this year.

Walker said in a phone interview that he will emphasize the state’s economic challenges to Obama, and highlight opportunities to increase rather than reduce energy production. He said he pitched the White House on visiting Valdez, a fishing and oil port where he was formerly mayor, so that he could show the president how “scenic” the landscape remains despite oil operations.

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