Alaska must capitalize on our assets to succeed in the 21st Century economy

Alaska is at a crossroads.

Thanks to the wisdom of the pioneers who built our state and the rich bounty of our God-given natural resources, we enjoy enormous wealth: a $40 billion Permanent Fund, $10 billion budget reserve and the entrepreneurial spirit of independent-minded Alaskans.

Yet, our future prosperity faces challenges. Alaska’s relationship with the federal government — a partnership which has accounted for about a third of our economy — is changing dramatically.

And we know international events beyond our control often impact us. Today we’re benefitting from high world oil prices driven by Middle East unrest, but as we’ve experienced many times, those prices can drop just as quickly.

Just like an earlier generation of Alaskans refused to surrender to federal dictates or be bullied by outside special interests, we must determine Alaska’s destiny, on Alaska’s terms.

I have outlined three areas where I believe we must focus our energies to build a sustainable economy for the 21st century:

• Continue doing what Alaska does best in cutting-edge resource development;

• Seize enormous future opportunities in the Arctic; and

• Transform Alaska’s technology-based economy for the future.

Oil fuels Alaska’s economy, generating more than 110,000 Alaska jobs and producing generous dividends for each Alaskan. But today, North Slope production is at a record low, threatening the pipeline’s continued viability.

That’s why we must develop reserves on both state and federal lands and waters. I have introduced legislation to streamline the federal process with a federal Arctic outer continental shelf coordinator. This office would work across the agencies causing Alaska so much heartburn today — the EPA, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and th Interior Department.

We also need to address the two different energy development air permitting systems, one for the Gulf of Mexico and one for everyone else, including the Arctic. This makes no sense and puts Alaska companies at a competitive disadvantage.

When it comes to Alaska’s natural gas pipeline, the national focus on clean energy is good news. We at the federal level are poised to do everything necessary to get Alaska gas to market, including increasing federal loan guarantees and cutting red tape.

The second major focus for a prosperous 21st century economy is the enormous future opportunities in the Arctic.

To address impacts of climate change there, I have introduced seven bills designed to help Alaska adapt to these changes. I’ll be pushing these measures from my new position as chair of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Fisheries, Atmosphere and Coast Guard. This was known as “Alaska’s Committee” when the late Senator Ted Stevens chaired it because of its broad jurisdiction over issues vital to our state.

Finally, success in the fiercely competitive 21st century economy depends on better preparing Alaskans. Alaska already boasts many cutting-edge entrepreneurs who say well-educated young people who excel at math, science and computer skills are vital.

That’s why I recently introduced legislation to improve teaching in science, technology, engineering and math. Instead of the disastrous No Child Left Behind, my bill targets funds to high-need students in high-need districts, encourages out-of-the-box thinking and supports professional teacher development.

We also must incubate more Alaska innovators with high-speed Internet access. Alaska ranks dead last among the 50 states for Internet speed, which hampers our children’s digital literacy and restricts small business development. I’m using my position on the Commerce Committee to make sure broadband goes to both urban and rural America.

Finally, we must encourage the growth of small businesses, which have generated two-thirds of new American jobs in the last 15 years. That’s why I was a strong supporter of the Small Business Jobs and Credit Act, which provides more funding for small business loans, waives capital gains taxes on small business investments and allows self-employed taxpayers to deduct health care costs.

Alaskans should work toward a common goal of building our economy for the 21st century. I believe that calls for keeping our economy strong today with responsible resource development, capitalizing on new challenges in the changing Arctic and better preparing Alaskans for the increasingly competitive global economy.

• Begich is the former mayor of Anchorage and is serving his first term in the U.S. Senate.

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