Opinion: Alaska's environmental standards aren't the best in the world

Editor’s note: Kate Troll’s columns will begin publishing less frequently, about once per month, due to other commitments.

 

“Alaska has some of the most stringent environmental standards in the world.”

This is what you hear from state politicians in defense against the EPA’s involvement in the Pebble Mine issue. It is also a statement posted on several resource industry web pages. This is not surprising because it is a claim that’s been around for a while. It may in fact have been partially true back in the 1990s, when the Department of Fish and Game supported a strong Habitat and Restoration Division and the state had a robust coastal management program. Now this claim just simply gets said because if you say it often enough, people begin to believe it’s true.

Ever since the election of Frank Murkowski as governor in 2002, the State of Alaska has been, with one exception, on a steady and determined path to roll back environmental protections and public involvement in the permitting of development projects. It all started when Gov. Murkowski, set out to dismantle the Habitat Division. He not only succeeded in thinning out the ranks and breadth of the division, but he placed them under the Department of Natural Resources; a move that further weakened the role of habitat biologists. The other vehicle Gov. Murkowski used to roll back environmental safeguards was to weaken the role of municipalities and districts in the Alaska Coastal Management Program (ACMP). What Gov. Murkowski started, Gov. Sean Parnell finished with his veto threat during the ACMP special session. Gov. Parnell’s success in ending the ACMP now makes Alaska the only coastal state in the union not to participate in coastal zone management.

Many Alaskans may not realize that without the habitat standards of the ACMP, our Habitat Division, now back under Fish and Game, is largely unable to address wildlife habitat. The ability to protect wildlife and wildlife habitat through enforceable permit conditions no longer exists. We have also lost on the fish side. While actions within the active channel of salmon streams and fish passage are regulated, the now-defunct ACMP protected the critical habitats along stream banks, beds of trout streams, estuaries and tide flats. Today, additional fish protection relies on DNR, the agency that removed “conserve and enhance” from its mission statement.

How can we speak of having strong environmental safeguards when we eliminate the ability to protect wildlife habitat and systematically weaken fish protection? How does being the only non-participating coastal state make us the best in the U.S., let alone the world? How does being the only coastal region in North America without a climate action plan make us tops?

Looking through the lens of Alaska’s recent history of regulatory rollback, clearly this claim no longer applies. Nonetheless, it keeps being made. So I wondered what is Alaska’s actual environmental ranking? Where do we stack up compared with other states? I could not find an answer to where Alaska rates in the world, but I could find global rankings for the United States and then state rankings. Here are the highlights from my search:

• The 2014 Environmental Performance Index, conducted by the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, ranks 178 countries on how well they perform on protection of human health from environmental harm and protection of ecosystems. The U.S. scored 33rd.

• In July 2013, CNN Money analyzed the state’s energy, waste, environmental management and mass transit systems to come up with their “How Green is My State?” report. Alaska ranked 43rd in the nation.

• In 2010, the Wall Street Journal examined energy consumption, pollution and energy policies while ranking states on energy and air quality. Alaska came in 19th.

• In 2010, Greenopia, the leading directory of eco-friendly businesses, completed a “green” rating of all the states. Greenopia looked at greenhouse gas emissions, energy and water consumption, air and water quality, recycling rate, renewable energy generation, number of LEED certified buildings, number of green businesses and how progressive states’ legislatures have been in adopting green measures. Alaska scored 43rd.

• In 2007, Forbes Magazine ranked each state in the categories of: carbon footprint, air quality, water quality, hazardous waste management, policy initiatives and energy consumption. Alaska scored 40th.

If you average Alaska’s ranking among all states it comes in 36th overall. If I do the math right, 36th out of 50 states comprising the 33rd best country on Earth is a long way from having some of the most stringent standards in the world.

• Troll is a long-time Alaskan with more than 22 years of experience in fisheries, coastal policy and energy policy. She resides in Douglas. She serves on the Juneau Assembly. The views expressed above are her own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of other assembly members.

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