Climate change roundtable puts Alaska contradictions on full display

John Hopson, Jr., (r) of Wainright and Rand Hagenstein (l) of The Nature Conservancy joined representatives from oil and gas, mining, environmental groups and local communities at the Walker administration’s climate change round table in Anchorage on Oct. 4, 2017. (Photo by Rachel Waldholz/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

A downtown Anchorage conference room hosted an unusual meeting Wednesday, as Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott gathered a cross-section of Alaskans to brainstorm paths forward on climate change.

Listen now

Representatives from the oil and gas and mining industries joined environmentalists and local community leaders to spitball solutions. The Walker administration plans to use the ideas to inform a state climate policy currently in the works.

About 35 people sat around tables on the second floor of Anchorage’s Dena’ina Center. Giant notepads on easels sat ready for participants to jot down thoughts, each with a label: adaptation, mitigation, research and response.

“I don’t need to emphasize here that climate change is real,” Mallott told the gathering in his opening remarks, calling it a “generational” challenge.

“There is no stopping what is happening,” Mallott added.

But as participants gathered in groups to brainstorm, the state’s contradictions were on full display. Alaska is an oil state that sits on the front lines of global warming. The room included people who depend on oil for their livelihood, and those coping with the impacts of climate change on the ground – represented at the same table, sometimes by same person.

Joshua Kindred pointed out that paradox; he works for the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, the industry’s main advocate in the state. Kindred said the word that comes to mind when he thinks about trying to address climate change is “quixotic.”

“We’re a state that produces 500,000 barrels a day, on a planet that consumes almost a hundred million barrels a day,” Kindred said. “When we talk about things like reducing our carbon footprint, and what we can do at the local level, I think we have to acknowledge the fact that we have very limited control to change the long-term path of climate change. So, how do we advocate on a global level?”

Sitting across from him, Karen Pletnikoff said she sees plenty of opportunities for Alaskans, and the Alaska oil industry, to move the needle on climate change. Pletnikoff is with the Aleutian Pribiloff Islands Association, which is working with communities to plan for climate impacts.

“I think your specific industry has a wonderful opportunity to do a lot to protect the environment by preventing methane escapes in the North,” Pletnikoff told Kindred.

Across the room, former Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell argued that action on climate change doesn’t have to threaten oil production. He said he’s hopeful new technology might emerge to capture carbon emissions – and suggested Alaska should be at the forefront of carbon capture and sequestration.

“I think the joke’s going to be on those who think oil and gas is going to go away. I think we have to be part of trying to make sure oil and gas are clean,” Treadwell said. “We’ve done a pretty good job with oil and gas over the last 30 years. And if carbon’s a new problem, let’s figure out a way to get it out of there. That doesn’t mean kill it.”

Joel Neimeyer, with the federal Denali Commission, raised the issue of Alaska villages that may have to abandon their current sites because of climate change.

Neimeyer said the state needs to make up its mind and declare a position – whether Alaska favors relocating whole villages to new sites or just moving individual families into cities, which is much cheaper.

Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott listened to participants in the Walker administration’s climate change round table in Anchorage, Oct. 4, 2017. (Photo by Rachel Waldholz/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

“If the State of Alaska is about relocating villages and not relocating families, I think that would be a good thing to know,” Neimeyer said.

In the end, he said, relocation is probably out of the state’s hands: it will come down to whether Congress is willing to loosen the federal purse strings.

“I think if the State of Alaska says, ‘This is our policy,’ that would be helpful to Congress,” Neimeyer said. “Now, will they consider it? Yeah. Will they actually adopt it in the end? We don’t know.”

“Will they pay for it?” Adm. Thomas Barrett interjected.

Barrett heads up the Alyeska Pipeline Service Co., which operates the trans-Alaska pipeline.

“Yeah, will they pay for it. Ultimately, that’s what it comes down to,” Neimeyer agreed.

Mallott said exchanges like that, between people on all sides of the issue – including the oil industry and those working with communities in the path of climate change – were the whole purpose of the meeting.

The governor’s office plans to use ideas raised in the brainstorming session to develop its climate action plan, which it aims to release later this year.