Imagine reading this oped:
“Alaska oil helps enrich Alaskans and power the world
“In late March of this year, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources issued its forecast for 2019 statewide oil production of 184 million barrels. This was good news for practically everyone who uses gas or oil or both for their car, truck, snowmachine, chainsaw, home heating, lawn mowing, you name it, as the forecast represented an 84 percent increase from the 2018 production of 100 million barrels.
“According to DNR scientist Andy Motorhead, ‘most of that increase is expected to be driven by the enhanced crude production of ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips.’
“ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil are responsible for 73 percent and 20 percent, respectively, of the total ‘enhanced production’ coming from Alaska’s fading North Slope oil field.
“Fluctuating production is a perennial headache for the state, but motorists, boaters, homeowners and anyone else who uses fuel also feel the effects of the year-to-year disparities.
“In the years since 2013’s record production of 250 million barrels, the figure has plummeted to about 90 million in 2014, rebounded to almost break the record in 2015 with about 240 million, only to sink again to barely over 100 million in 2016, before rebounding to about 220 million in 2017.
“Of course, every forecast has error bars around it. Last year’s production fell about 32 million barrels shy of the yearly forecast. Enhanced production cannot completely dampen the natural swings in oil production, but as its contribution to the flow of crude reliably represents 20 percent to 40 percent of the total, these efforts ensure more for all.
“What does that 20 percent to 40 percent mean in terms of oil consumed in homes and motor vehicles? About a billion people saved from the bitter cold of the northern states or the deadly heat of the southern states, or about one more day of life for everyone in the country.
“That’s an impact we can all be proud of here at home in Alaska.
“According to Alaska’s Division of Economic Development, the recovery rate for consumer products from crude is about 65 percent, so 184 million barrels represents about 120 million barrels or about 5 billion gallons of petroleum lifeblood flowing into the American economy.
“Assuming that an average fill-up of gas is 10 gallons, that 5 billion gallons of tank-ready gas provides the power for 500 million drivers to motor around for a day or week, depending on the fuel consumption of their vehicle of choice. Drop the fill up to five gallons, and you have more than one billion people able to enjoy the roads of the nation thanks to Alaska’s oil.
“In addition to powering up those more than 1 billion people a year, Alaska’s oil industry is the source of about 4,700 jobs and $988 million in total labor income annually. This comes without any state subsidies or tax.
“The oil industry funds 100 percent of the enhanced recovery effort. This isn’t surprising, given the boost that enhanced recovery provides to the industry. In the years since 1985, when the enhancement program began, the average annual natural production has remained stable at 10 million barrels (1910 to 1985) to 200 million barrels (1985 to 2018).
“Even so, Exxon and Conoco are not immune from controversy. Some claim that enhanced production displaces natural production on which the state might make more money, or that enhanced production degrades the oil field.
“The Department of Natural Resources permits and monitors the state’s oil business and reporting carefully, however, limiting production whenever necessary. To resolve many of these questions, Natural Resources and the oil producers are conducting a series of research efforts, collectively known as the Pruhoe Bay Oil Field Alaska Interaction Study. This study addresses production issues and the degree to which enhancement affects the oilfield.
“In 2018, more than 600,000 Alaskans from Ketchikan to Kodiak benefited from this oil. Alaska oil producers are proud to have provided the capital that keeps the Permanent Fund Dividend checks flowing and for having provided most of the state’s revenue since the TransAlaska Oil Pipeline System went into operation in 1975.
“During a time of fiscal crisis, the industry stands on its own without reliance upon the state or its residents and continues to provide the state 10 times the revenue of all other businesses combined.
“Ultimately, this program is the model for any state built on oil. It is financially independent, regulated by the state, and producing billions of gallons of fuel per year for Alaskans and consumers worldwide. This is a program we can stand by, proving the test of time, no matter the political or economic turbulence. Alaskans can assert with confidence again this year that our beloved Alaska oil continues to power families in the Last Frontier, the Lower 48 and across the globe.”
Not on your life
The Alaska Oil and Gas Association wouldn’t have the nerve to run an op-ed like this in Alaska. Even less so one of the major producers. They know you know – and more importantly, you recognize – that they are big businesses.
And they do what big businesses do everywhere – be they in capitalist, socialist or totalitarian economies. They try to make enough money to keep on doing business. They’re not trying to do favors for Alaskans, Americans or anyone else.
If America benefits from North Slope oil production, that’s an added benefit for the producers, but it’s not why they’re in business. And they’re not dumb enough to think the average Alaskan so naive she or he would buy the idea the oil industry is here to do everyone a favor.
And Alaska’s commercial fishing industry? Well, that’s a different matter.
The only real difference between this op-ed mockup and the fishing industry’s real oped is that the references to hatchery-produced salmon were replaced with references to enhanced oil.
Alaska’s salmon ranchers – the folks whose farming depends on the public waters of the North Pacific ocean in the same way some Lower 48 cattle growers depend on the public lands of the federal Bureau to graze their cattle sans any fees for use of public waters – appear to believe that Alaskans will buy this pitch and embrace the idea that commercial fisheries that cost the state more to operate than they produce in tax revenue are always good idea, and that Alaskans should be thankful for their reward of an estimated sport, dipnet and subsistence catch of 270,000 hatchery-produced salmon in 2018.
That is an amazingly tiny slice of a big pie.
A combined sport-dipnet-subsistence catch of 270,000 would equal about 0.7 percent of the total harvest of hatchery-produced salmon. It is less than the 297,000 wild, Kenai River sockeye caught in just that river’s personal-use, dipnet fishery in 2017.
The 2018 Kenai dipnet catch was not so good. At 165,000 sockeye, it was the lowest harvest in a dozen years. It was low because the total return of sockeye to Cook Inlet was low, continuing a trend that dates back to the 1990s. The trend is reflected in the commercial harvests of Upper Cook Inlet sockeye that peaked at 4.4 million in the 1980s and have fallen steadily since:
- 3.8 million in the 1990s.
- 3 million in the 2000s.
- 2.6 million as the 2010s draw to a close.
The decline generally correlates with the rise in the production of hatchery pink salmon in Prince William Sound just south of the mouth of Cook Inlet. Some fisheries scientists have suggested that in a warming ocean short-lived, fast-growing pinks enjoy a competitive advantage over the other four species of salmon, but Bill Templin, the chief fisheries scientist for Fish and Game, has assured the state Board of Fisheries that “correlation is not causation.”
As other scientists point out, however, that old cliche doesn’t rule out finding a correlation does reflect causation. Legend has it this is the way Sir Isaac Newton discovered gravity. He saw an apple fall, recognized that detached objects don’t hang in the air above the earth or rise up, and concluded – viola! – there must some force causing detached objects to fall to the ground.
A growing body of evidence indicating pinks are increasing their dominance in the ecosystem of the North Pacific ocean led some non-commercial fishing groups to last summer petition the Fish Board to put the brakes on hatchery production.
The Board refused to do so after hearing from Templin, who urged board members to ignore the view of other scientists. But the petition rattled operators of the private, non-profit, commercial-fishermen-run hatcheries who have pretty much been allowed to do what they want in the state for decades.
Their response was to launch what would politely be called a “public relations” campaign or more accurately described as a propaganda war.
The goal is to convince Alaskans that hatcheries are a human wonder that benefits all with no consequences for the natural world. That might be true, and it might be false.
All one can say definitively these days is that hatcheries have been good, in some cases very good, for some commercial fishermen and for the people who run the hatcheries, and especially good for Prince William Sound, where a marginal commercial fishery for pink salmon has turned into a thriving commercial fishery thanks to hatcheries.
Commercial fishermen have benefitted the most from that, but the economic trickle-down has been good for the small communities of Cordova, Valdez and Whittier. There is no doubt about that.
The net return for Alaskans as a whole? Nobody knows.
If Alaskans are losing Cook Inlet sockeye or, worse yet, big king salmon – the most revered salmon in the state – to increase the production of humpies (the common Alaska name for pinks) in the Sound, what then?
How many Alaskans – other than commercial salmon seiners catching enough pinks to profit from their carcasses at a price of 20 to 30 cents per pound – want to trade sockeye, Chinook (king) and coho salmon for pinks?
And even if a majority of Alaskans wanted to make that trade, would it be in the best interests= of a state economy that can net hundreds of dollars per pound from sockeye, Chinook or coho caught by tourists?
I sympathize with the hatchery owners. Businesses need stable regulatory and tax policies in order to propser. But Alaska commercial fishing interests sometimes seem to forget that Alaska’s Constitution dictates that “wherever occurring in their natural state, fish, wildlife, and waters are reserved to the people for common use.”
Common use means sharing. When more than 99.9 percent of the people get less than 1 percent of those hatchery fish sold around the world as “wild caught,” and the 0.1 percent benefits to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars from the rest, you have to wonder about how well that “common use” clause is being met.
So, please, just quit trying to snow Alaskans.