L48 Senators See Arctic Irony in Alaskan Views

In the nation’s capital, lawmakers fled to the airports ahead of a snow storm today that closed most government offices. But one U.S. senator held a hearing anyway. Scores of Alaskans packed into Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s Energy Committee for a hearing on Arctic opportunities. Sen. Al Franken used it as his opportunity to highlight what he sees as an Arctic paradox.

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The hearing provided an overview of Arctic issues: The prospect of new trade routes and drilling as the sea ice retreats, the need for infrastructure, the threat of erosion. Alaska witnesses advocated for more Arctic oil development, on federal lands and off-shore.  State Rep. Bob Herron, a Democrat, says Arctic Alaskans deserve a chance at economic advancement.

“We’re not a snow globe,” he said. “We’re not little Eskimos in a museum.”

Sen. Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat who used to make a living from satire, smelled irony. He asked climate change scientist Cecilia Bitz to confirm that greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet and, to a large extent, causing the loss of sea ice. Then Franken spelled out the paradox: “That the burning of fossil fuels is creating the opportunity to create more fossil fuels to burn.”

“It is obviously ironic, yes,” Bitz agreed.

“It’s funny how ironic it is,” Franken said, darkly. “It’s hilarious.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent and a fierce champion of limiting carbon emissions, pursued it further.

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers predicted that the highest point in the village of Newtok, Alaska … could be underwater by 2017,” Sanders said. “A proposed move to higher ground could cost as much as 130 million (dollars).”

Moreover, Sanders said, 86 percent of all Alaska Native villages are deemed at risk due to climate change. Sanders pushed the Alaskan witnesses to answer for their support of oil development.

“You are, some of you at least, are in favor of more production of fossil fuel, which is ultimately destroying the very communities your people live in,” Sanders told the witness panel. “That does not make a lot of sense to me, in all respect. What am I missing?”

North Slope Borough Mayor Charlotte Brower took the long view.

“I believe that this is a 10,000 year old question. We never question anything that comes to us. We live with what has come before us –.” Sanders cut her off, saying he only had a few minutes to pursue his questions, but Brower appeared to be making a point about accepting new technology to improve living conditions. She’d earlier explained how the Prudhoe Bay oil discovery had allowed the Inupiat to move out of sod houses and warm their homes with natural gas instead of whale oil.

Murkowski then brought up revenue sharing as a solution. If Alaska communities got a share of the proceeds of federal petroleum lease sales, Murkowski says it could help towns pay to relocate or defend against erosion. Republican state Sen. Lesil McGuire, another Alaskan on the witness panel, agreed.

“And just to touch back on Sen. Sanders’ (question), I think what we’re asking for is the opportunity to continue to adapt,” McGuire said.

McGuire says the world will keep burning fossil fuel while renewables develop, so that  fuel might as well come from Alaska, where the revenue can improve the lives of the people most vulnerable to climate change.

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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