You could almost hear a collective cheer rise up among Alaskans late last week when the U.S. Senate voted to include a provision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development in its upcoming budget. After all, ANWR and the possibility that its oil could hold the key to Alaska's financial future has been the Holy Grail for Alaska politicians for the past two decades.
There is no doubt that drilling in ANWR will benefit Alaska and its people. Estimates of the amount of oil beneath the coastal plain are in the 10 billion barrel range enough to keep the trans-Alaska pipeline pumping into the middle of the 21st century. That means jobs for Alaskans and cash for the state's coffers. It means stability for our economy and a level of security and certainty for our future that has been lacking in recent years as production from current North Slope fields has begun to slowly decline.
Combined with the fact that a major natural gas pipeline could become a reality within a decade, the ANWR news may lead some to speculate that Alaska is in store for the latest and perhaps largest boom in its ongoing cycle of booms and busts brought on by our dependence on natural resource development.
There are a number of reasons to think this might not entirely be the case. First, oil companies have been doing business on the North Slope for more than 30 years. The addition of new fields likely won't spur a large increase in employment, but rather a gradual ramp-up in the number of workers companies need to produce the new fields.
Second, the gas pipeline project certainly will create new jobs, but not on the order of magnitude as were created when the oil pipeline then the largest private construction project in history was built.
That being said, it's likely these two key developments will spur major growth across Alaska. Anchorage will continue to grow larger, putting pressure on the Palmer-Wasilla and Point Mackenzie areas as urban sprawl becomes a larger issue. Rural communities, along the gas pipeline route, likely will see an influx of new residents and new cash that could either be used for long-term community development or short-term fixes to existing problems.
What these developments will mean to Alaska's overall quality of life is unknown. Will the growth in our state's population cause damage to our spectacular natural resources?
Environmentalists who have opposed opening ANWR have routinely used slanted facts and twisted images to skew the debate. Most of us who live in Alaska understand that the barren coastal plain likely won't be harmed significantly if oil development takes place on the tiny sliver of land (only 2,000 acres of the 17.5 million acre refuge will be directly affected) that's been proposed.
However, the impact of a growing population and new money for development concerns us. After all, the Kenai Peninsula is essentially Anchorage's back yard. As the place where Alaskans choose to play, what will another boom mean for already-stressed resources like the Kenai River?
That being said, we're thrilled the Senate has begun the process of opening ANWR. Development of our oil and gas resources is a good thing because it means a stable economy and jobs for future generations.
But as a new era for Alaska begins to dawn, now is the time to begin planning for the effects of this new period of prosperity. How Alaska's people deal with this great opportunity will be the legacy we leave. Let's make the most of it.
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