Alaska’s Resource Development History Is One of Environmental Protection

By Larry Barsukoff

This op-ed was originally published by the Anchorage Daily News on February 14, 2020.

Remember the Exxon Valdez? Of course. Now name another major industrial accident in Alaska. Some of you may be thinking about the 2006 pipeline leak that spilled 213,000 gallons of crude oil up in Prudhoe. The real challenge? Name a third.

Our Department of Environmental Conservation maintains a database of spills. And of course, there are accidents that result in fuel, heating oil or crude oil escaping primary containment. It is the magnitude of these spills that draws my interest. Far and away, almost all are relatively minor. Certainly very few draw the attention of the national media and, most of the time, are also overlooked by local media.

The point? Alaska has a pretty darn good industrial safety record when it comes to prevention of environmental contamination. Ever heard of an accidental discharge at one of Alaska’s mines? You likely haven’t, for the same reason that the federal Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t make regular appearances in the state. Companies that operate in our state have done a good job fostering a culture of concern to work safely and cleanly.

Speak with anyone that works on the North Slope and ask about the lengths they go to in order to minimize any sort of accidental discharge. An example: vehicles and equipment parked any length of time must have “diapers” or other containment placed under them to prevent even drips of fluids from landing on the tundra. Spills of even a few gallons are treated with the utmost seriousness. Even while planning to exit the state, BP Alaska recently went through a series of company-wide work stoppages, during which trainings were held to re-stress the importance of an environmentally safe operational culture.

Why? Of course, there are fines and potential bad press that come from spills. This, however, doesn’t go far enough. Rather, there is value and pride that comes from working in a traditionally “dirty” industry in a way that minimizes environmental impact and, here in Alaska, has a more than four-decade-long history of largely unblemished operations. Did you know Usibelli Coal Mine, right next to Denali National Park, is an open-pit coal mine, and is a leader in land reclamation?

There seems to be a willingness to overlook the good work of all those involved in Alaska’s resource extraction industries dedicated to the health of our state’s environment. Kudos should also be paid to the regulators at the Department of Environmental Conservation and Department of Natural Resources charged with administration of Alaska’s laws and regulations. Our workers and professionals know what they’re doing and know how to do it cleanly.

Critics willingly ignore our history. They type out their screeds on smart phones (made possible by mining), dress in their synthetic outdoor gear (made from petroleum), and drive their electric vehicles (again, mining, powered by natural gas) to anti-development rallies. Their goal is not clean industry; their goal is no industry.

The state’s executive leadership since 2018 has put a welcome mat at Alaska’s door. This administration knows the primary job producers in the state are the oil, gas and mining industries. Support industries create thousands of additional jobs. Good-paying career jobs in industries with good, clean operating histories in a place dedicated to environmental stewardship, with an administrative infrastructure dedicated to continuing our largely unblemished track record.

Our industries should be treated as partners, welcomed in Alaska, and supported in their efforts and investments. Through years of experience gained working in some of the most rugged, remote and beautiful country in the world, they have earned our respect.


Larry Barsukoff, J.D., M.B.A., is the Energy and Environmental Policy Fellow at the Alaska Policy Forum.