Alaska is establishing a climate change strategy to keep the state in line with carbon-reduction goals set in the 2015 Paris Accords, the state's Republican governor, Bill Walker announced on Tuesday.
While other states have established their own plans to follow the goals of the Paris agreement — and invited Alaska to join various collective groups — the state's Arctic status was a big factor in the decision to create a standalone Alaska strategy, Walker said at the news conference.
"I don't think anyone is more knowledgeable about the Arctic than Alaskans," Walker said. "The United States is an Arctic nation only for one reason: It's because of Alaska."
Thanks in part to its Arctic setting and the needs of its indigenous peoples, Alaska has climate issues "that no other state has to deal with," he said.
A major task, Walker said, will be to come up with some solutions for communities like the Yupik village of Newtok and the Inupiat village of Kivalina, where residents want to relocate to safer ground from their current settings of rapidly eroding coastlines and dramatically thawing permafrost.
"I'm not confident that the federal funding will come through for village relocation," he said.
Alaska's role as an oil producer is another factor that sets it apart from some other states, Walker said.
Alaska is now about 70 percent economically dependent on hydrocarbon energy — mostly oil extraction — and that will continue for the near future, he said. Balancing fossil-fuel production and climate-change mitigation and response will be a challenge, but must be done, he said.
"That's just the way it has to be in Alaska. We will continue to responsibly develop our resources, our nonrenewable resources and use that as somewhat the bridge funding to be able to do what we need to do as a result of the impact of climate change on Alaska," he said.
In fact, oil production in Alaska is set to grow in the short term.
In presentations to state lawmakers currently meeting in a special session to grapple with the state's fiscal woes, Department of Natural Resources officials projected a slight increase in North Slope oil production for a third consecutive year — important for the state treasury, which is dependent on oil royalties and taxes. In an Oct. 25 legislative hearing, officials said they expected an increase of about 9,000 barrels per day, to an average 533,000 barrels per day average for fiscal 2018, which started on July 1.
Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, whom Walker named as the head of the 15-member panel, said Alaska in the long term will have to end its economic dependence on fossil fuels.
That long-term goal will be a "critical and necessary focus" of the state strategy and leadership team's work "will necessarily revolve around a transition from a petroleum-based economy to a renewable-energy-based economy," Mallott said at the news conference.
There will be more short-term action as well, including boosted research and partnerships with other entities as needed, he said.
"What this administrative order does is allows us to more globally look at the Arctic, its place in global climate change, allows Alaska to look on the full range of the oceans, the waters that surround our state. It allows us to be involved with other institutions, with other states, with even other nations as we move forward," he said.
Aside from Mallott, no members of the leadership team have been appointed. Mallott said the administration is asking Alaskans to apply or to recommend others, through the state's Office of Boards and Commissions, to join the team.
Though various state agencies will be involved in the strategy and its implementation, this climate change effort is different from others undertaken by the state because it seeks to directly involve members of the public, the governor and other administration officials said.
Past state work on climate issues includes a special subcabinet group assembled in 2007 by Gov. Sarah Palin, which incorporated and Immediate Action Work Group to address local problems like coastal erosion and storm surges, and the Alaska Arctic Policy Commission, which made recommendations about state, national and cross-border policies.
The leadership team is to provide an initial plan of action by Sept. 1, 2018, with annual plans to follow, according to the administrative order.
Reaction to the new climate strategy was mixed.
Michael LeVine, senior Arctic fellow at the environmental group Ocean Conservancy, said it was a good step.
"Governor Bill Walker and Lt. Governor Byron Mallott have taken a measured, carefully considered action that can help lay the foundation for a sustainable future for our state," LeVine said in a statement. "Today's order rightly prioritizes resilient communities, healthy ecosystems and a vibrant economy. It also demonstrates that planning a safer, smarter and stronger Alaska in the face of climate change is a nonpartisan issue."
But parties in a new lawsuit that accuses the Walker administration of foot-dragging on climate change were not impressed.
By continuing to push for more oil and gas development, the governor and his administration undercut their professed concern about climate change and impacts in Alaska, said the attorney representing the young Alaskans who filed the lawsuit last week in state Superior Court in Anchorage.
"Governor Walker's administrative order on climate change is just more business as usual in Alaska," Andrew Welle, a staff attorney with Our Children's Trust who is representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement.
Studies and recommendations were already made over a decade ago, Welle said.
"Governor Walker wants to recreate the wheel and further delay emissions reductions in Alaska while he and the state continue to aggressively expand oil and gas extraction. The science is clear, these Alaskan youth don't need further delay and recommendations," he said in the statement.