My Turn: New CO2 rule should be applied to oil, gas industries

The Environmental Protection Agency rule proposed Monday to reduce carbon emissions from electrical power plants is a positive step nationally, but as currently written it will do little to reduce Alaska’s emissions, where electric utilities contribute only a small part of Alaska’s greenhouse gas total.  

The 2008 State of Alaska GHG Inventory estimates that, while total GHG emissions in Alaska are about 53 million tons per year, emissions from the electricity generation sector are only about 3 million tons per year.

By far the two largest sources of GHG emissions in Alaska are the oil and gas industry (15 million tons) and commercial aviation (12 million tons), together accounting for over half our annual total.  As proposed, the EPA rule does nothing to reduce these, or other emission sources. Thus, while this new rule will make a difference nationally and should be adopted, in Alaska it won’t reduce our total emissions by more than one or two percent. Every little bit helps, but we can’t ignore the big bits.

If we really want to make a dent in Alaska’s carbon emissions, we need to address our two largest sources: oil and gas and commercial aviation.  At a minimum, the proposed EPA rule should be expanded to include the oil and gas power sector, which in Alaska is the single largest emission source. 

Alaska’s Renewable Energy Fund has been helpful, but absent emissions regulation or a carbon tax, it will clearly not be enough to substantially reduce emissions.

Of course, the largest part of Alaska’s carbon footprint is the oil, gas and coal produced for export, which is not accounted for in the Alaska GHG inventory.  At peak production, Alaska oil exports alone contributed over 300 million tons of CO2 per year to the global atmosphere. The 17 billion barrels of oil produced in Alaska to date have contributed over 7 billion tons of CO2 to the global atmosphere. Thus, while Alaska oil has generated billions of dollars in revenue, it has also caused a disproportionately large impact to global climate and ecosystems, imposing billions of dollars in climate-related costs on others around the world. 

With only .01 percent of the world population, Alaska has contributed roughly 1 percent of the total global atmospheric carbon emitted from human causes.  Considering that the current annual cost of climate change worldwide already exceeds $1 trillion, and an estimated150,000 deaths per year are linked to climate change, Alaska’s share of the global impact is perhaps $10 billion and 1,500 deaths per year.  Economists often fail to account for these indirect climate costs of oil development.

Regardless what we do with emissions here in Alaska, a dramatic reduction in global carbon emissions is undeniably in our long-term interest.  To stabilize world climate and ecosystems, global carbon emissions need to drop about 80 percent below current levels.  This will be a difficult challenge, but it is achievable with broader emissions regulation, greater efficiency standards, a carbon tax and cap-and-trade markets.

Alaska needs to do more than simply observe and study climate change.  Rather than habitually opposing all efforts to reduce carbon emissions nationally and globally, it would be in Alaska’s enlightened self-interest to join such efforts.  It is not only possible for a carbon-exporting state like Alaska to advocate more responsible and efficient use of carbon globally, it is an ethical imperative, particularly as we have contributed disproportionately to global climate change, and climate change represents such a clear threat to our own future.

Additionally, we need to get serious with efforts to manage and adapt to the effects of climate change here at home, as proposed in the 2010 Alaska Climate Change Strategy.  Unfortunately, the Legislature and governor so far have ignored this issue.   

Gov. Sean Parnell terminated the former Alaska Climate Change Sub-Cabinet, and has declined requests to join other western states in addressing regional climate change issues. A bill was proposed — but never introduced — during the 2014 Legislature that would have established an Alaska Office on Climate Change and an Alaska Climate Response Fund, derived from a 10 cents-per-barrel equivalent tax on hydrocarbons to fund response and adaptation needs in Alaska. 

Hopefully in the near future, wisdom and reason will transcend the shortsighted petro-politics of Alaska, and state government will begin to provide the necessary leadership on this grave threat to the future of Alaska.

• Rick Steiner was a marine conservation professor with the University of Alaska, and today is a conservation biologist with Oasis Earth, based in Anchorage.

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