With both cheers and tears, Alaskans react to big energy policy changes under Trump

Clint Winzenburg was at this year’s Resource Development Council conference, and he thinks the Trump administration can help take Alaska’s economy a positive direction. (Photo by Elizabeth Harball, Alaska’s Energy Desk.)

When Donald Trump was elected president, Alaskans immediately started wondering what changes were in store — especially when it came to oil and mining.

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One year later, we have a better idea. The Trump administration is moving to get rid of many Obama-era policies, affecting everything from the Pebble Mine, to offshore oil drilling, to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Last week, at two different gatherings in Anchorage, Alaskans expressed very different feelings about the big shift in Washington.

The first event was the Resource Development Council’s annual conference. As Governor Bill Walker took the stage to speak, he was practically walking on air.

“What a great day this is — it started off wonderfully in Washington, D.C.,” Walker said.

Walker was feeling celebratory because, that morning, Congress took another step towards allowing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — just one of many pro-oil developments happening under the Trump administration. And, Walker said, the push is coming from the very top.

“We have an administration that wants energy dominance,” Walker said. “And I love it when President Trump has said a number of times to me, ‘America cannot have energy dominance without Alaska at full potential.’”

At this year’s conference, the optimism was in the hallways, too, where there was a general feeling that a door that was once closed has opened up again.

Clint Winzenburg was working a booth for Alaska Industrial Hardware. He thinks Alaska’s future is looking up under the Trump administration.

“I think mining’s going to take off, I think there’s going to be new exploration up on the [North] Slope,” Winzenburg said. “I see good things, positive things.”

Kate Blair thinks the Trump administration is opening up opportunities, but worries things might be happening too quickly. (Photo by Elizabeth Harball, Alaska’s Energy Desk.)

“There’s more potential and more opportunity than there ever has been,” Kate Blair, who works for the oil refining company Andeavor, said.

But Blair does see one reason to be concerned about all the actions Trump is taking. She thinks if this administration moves too aggressively in the industry’s favor, it could backfire at the ballot box.

“What’s scary is how many restrictions are being rolled back that… the pendulum could swing the other way,” Blair said. “At the next election, people could think he’s gone too far.”

Blair summed up her feelings about what the Trump administration means for her industry in two words: cautious optimism.

The conference ended with a focus on the optimism part as participants cheered and clinked champagne glasses.

But the mood couldn’t have been more different at a gathering organized by a local left-leaning group, 49 Moons. It was held at the Williwaw restaurant, less than a block away from the industry conference.

“The dread and fear that we all felt last November, for me, has really found a place to roost,” Valerie Brown of Trustees for Alaska, one of the speakers, told the audience. Trustees for Alaska is a law firm that represents environmental groups.

Joan Galt (left) and Dana Durham at the Williwaw event (photo by Elizabeth Harball/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

“I know some of us here were thinking maybe, maybe, maybe he would not act as badly as his campaign rhetoric promised,” Brown continued. “And those of us who dared to hope for the best, now, I think, have all the information we need to join the ranks of those who feared for the worst.”

The Pebble Mine, the potential for drilling in the Arctic Refuge, the rollback of environmental regulations — everything people were feeling exited about at the Resources Development Council conference, here it was cause for sadness and alarm.

“I’m not hopeful at all,” Dana Durham of Girdwood, who was at the event, said.

Durham said she’s worried that if the oil industry starts drilling in the Arctic Refuge, that land will be shut off to people who want to enjoy the wilderness. She’s been there four times.

“Everything in that area there is going to be tied up, it’s going to be like private land. Nobody will be able to go there,” Durham said. “I hate to see that place change.”

Durham came to the event with her longtime friend, Joan Galt. They met on a flight from Anchorage to Washington, D.C. more than a decade ago; they were going there to lobby against drilling in the Arctic Refuge. Galt is also deeply unhappy with the way things are going under Trump.

“I feel depressed and anxious about how hard I’m going to fight over the next few years,” Galt said.

But unlike her friend, Galt does find one reason to be optimistic.

“I do hope that we don’t open the Arctic Refuge to drilling,” Galt said. “But I kind of feel like maybe the oil companies aren’t going to be that interested.”

Galt believes there’s no guarantee it will be economic for oil companies to drill in the Refuge. And she said that is a reason for her to stay hopeful.

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Elizabeth Harball is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk, covering Alaska’s oil and gas industry and environmental policy. She is a contributor to the Energy Desk’s Midnight Oil podcast series. Before moving to Alaska in 2016, Harball worked at E&E News in Washington, D.C., where she covered federal and state climate change policy. Originally from Kalispell, Montana, Harball is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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