If Alaskans voted to replace their Democratic senator with a Republican, as they did last November, what would a nice guy like Barack Obama do?
It turns out the answer is to ask Congress to designate an additional 12 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, making it much tougher for the cash-strapped Alaskan government to push drilling there.
Alaska’s politicians reacted to Obama’s announcement like the anti-ballistic missile base at Fort Greely would to a North Korean scud aimed at Fairbanks.
Rookie senator Dan Sullivan, who is still living down an opponent’s quip in 2014 that he had a jar of mayonnaise in the fridge that had lived in Alaska longer than Sullivan (he moved to the state in 1998), called Obama’s move an act of “war on Alaska’s families.”
Congressman Don Young tweeted that the “politically motivated attack on AK by Obama is akin 2 spitting in our faces & telling us it’s raining outside.”
Governor Bill Walker said he would respond by considering accelerating drilling on state-owned lands outside ANWR.
Rounding out the big four state-wide offices, Senator Lisa Murkowski said Obama’s moves amounted to “gut punches from this White House to our economy and future.” She went on to say Alaskans would defeat Obama’s “ultimate goal of making Alaska one big national park.”
Murkowski framed the issue as a “stunning attack on our sovereignty and our ability to develop a strong economy that allows us, our children and grandchildren to thrive… I cannot understand why this administration is willing to negotiate with Iran, but not Alaska.”
Three of the big four seats are currently occupied by Republicans, while Governor Walker is a former Republican turned independent. But don’t get the impression that Alaska Democrats wholeheartedly support Obama. The Alaska Democrat party chair put out a wistful statement noting that Democratic ex-senator Mark Begich had “served as a firewall to protect and expand Alaska resource development;” a firewall, presumably, against the Democratic administration in Washington.
The Alaskan reaction underlines two differences between their politics and ours: first, that Alaskan politicians are a lot less boring; and, second, that the resource industry’s defenders are much more passionate in Alaska.
The contrast with the recent Yukon legislature fracking committee’s work is stark. Representatives of all three Yukon parties were on the committee, yet the supposedly pro-development members of it failed to even study seriously the potential economic benefits to be measured against the environmental risks. As reported in a recent column, after a year and a half of work, the committee’s section on the economic benefits was only half a page long and didn’t have a single number in it.
Nor did they try to explain to Yukoners why the governments of B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan are comfortable with fracking.
Pro-resource Yukoners must have been left thinking that with friends like these, who needs enemies? Potential investors will have noticed the same thing.
The Yukon resource industry is at another of those crossroads it finds itself at every decade or two. The Peel is essentially an investment no-go zone, due to legal and regulatory risk. Capital markets are nervous even about small gold mines with their permits in place. Two mines have closed, leaving just Minto operating. Non-conventional oil and gas is under what appears to be a de facto moratorium. And recent developments in aboriginal law raise new questions about resource projects.
With all of that in mind, how likely do you think that the big Casino or Howard’s Pass projects will go ahead? Or even that a couple of new mid-sized mines will open in the next couple of years? Conventional oil and gas?
The trajectory does not look promising for the Yukon’s resource industry. And if no one in public office stands up and vigorously defends it Alaska-style, then that trend seems likely to continue.
If Obama’s ANWR designation eventually ends up getting overturned by Congress (although the Republicans don’t have the votes in the Senate to do it today) or a future president, there may already be a large triangular shaped park directly to the east.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show or Twitter