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Opinion: Oil, gas and the winds of war

The war in Ukraine is a grim reminder of how dependent we’ve become on fossil fuels.

  • By Doug Woodby
  • Saturday, March 12, 2022 6:12pm
  • Opinion

By Doug Woodby

It is heartening to see the push by our elected officials to divest the state from Russian assets in response to Russia’s war on Ukraine. But their push for increasing Alaska’s oil and gas production in response to the war is not only misguided, it’s a transparent attempt to score political points while promoting profiteering by the oil companies during a humanitarian crisis.

An article in the Anchorage Daily News added an admission by the oil industry and politicians that we can’t actually ramp up oil development in time to meet the current supply shortfalls, particularly via development in Alaska. In fact, for the proposed Willow project on the North Slope, ConocoPhillips has said that it will be six years after a decision to proceed before that project would pump any oil.

A better response would be to ramp up development of renewable energy sources. By the time the Willow project or similar new oil fields start pumping oil, we should be well on our way in a transition to renewable energy. And the science is clear: we must keep the majority of known reserves in the ground to avoid the worst climate impacts. Further expansion of oil infrastructure should be off the table.

The war in Ukraine is a grim reminder of how dependent we’ve become on fossil fuels. In fact, Ukraine’s top climate scientist says the war in Ukraine is a “fossil fuel war” where “Russia’s military might is underpinned by wealth garnered from the country’s vast oil and gas reserves” that Russia sells to pay for weapons, as reported in the Guardian on March 9.

And if we need more reminding, our own recent history is marked by wars where access to oil was a causal factor. As then-President George W. Bush declared in 2006, “America is addicted to oil.”

Why do we continue this addiction, with elected officials promoting more oil development? One simple answer: money from the fossil fuel industry has corrupted our democracy. The oil and gas sector regularly makes huge campaign contributions, mostly into Republican coffers (see opensecrets.org), buying influence to keep the sweetheart subsidies flowing and climate-related laws from being enacted.

As a Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin is the exception that proves the rule of our corrupted democracy: he was the top Senate recipient of funds from the fossil fuel industry in the last two years, receiving over half a million dollars ($582,000), more than 5 times that of the next highest recipient (James Lankford, R-Oklahoma). With Manchin’s opposition to the Build Back Better legislation, it looks like Big Oil got what it wanted.

The oil and gas companies have an unflinching business plan to keep exploring and developing reserves, and they will keep at it as long as their money pipeline keeps flowing. We can stop this money pipeline if we have alternatives. And that is what our elected leaders should be promoting.

If our elected leaders can push for divestment because of Putin’s war, why can’t they push for divestment from fossil fuels and investment in renewables? The climate crisis is emerging as a different and more insidious type of war: a war on life itself. The latest United Nations climate report makes clear that we can expect devastating impacts on the entire planet, crippling the earth’s ability to sustain life as we know it if we don’t dramatically reduce our burning of fossil fuels.

Getting off oil will also help calm the winds of war.

There are no simple solutions. But we won’t have a chance if we keep electing politicians who prioritize oil companies over people and planet.

• Doug Woodby is co-chair of 350Juneau – Climate Action for Alaska. He is a retired Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game scientist living in Juneau.

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