WA Sen. Maria Cantwell’s great week highlights Alaska’s identity crisis

By Danny Westneat, Seattle Times columnist

Having a pretty good week: Wild salmon and centuries-old cedars. 

Having a great week: Washington’s junior U.S. senator, Maria Cantwell. 

Having an identity crisis: Alaska. 

In the past seven days, Cantwell, along with environmentalists, tribes and fishing interests, won some huge victories for the planet up north. 

First they won a three-decade-long war over old-growth logging — for now —when the Biden Administration barred timber road-building in America’s largest national forest, the Tongass, in southeast Alaska. 

Then on Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency blocked the proposed Pebble Mine . It would have been the biggest open-pit mine ever in North America, upstream of Bristol Bay, which is home to the largest wild sockeye run. 

“No company will ever be able to stick a mine on top of some of the best salmon habitat in the world,” Cantwell crowed in a floor speech to the U.S. Senate Tuesday. 

Not so sure about that — the lawyers and judges still get their say. As might, say, a President DeSantis? Cantwell though, who has slogged away to protect the Tongass for more than 20 years, and Bristol Bay for more than 10, deserves at least this temporary victory lap. 

It’s not often, with a choice between fish and “one of the greatest stores of mineral wealth ever discovered,” that our system would actually side with the fish. 

It’s interesting, too because increasingly it seems that Alaska, one of America’s final frontiers for the old ways of heavy resource extraction, is slowly digesting the hard truth that it needs to change. 

In a state where both the economy and the state budget remain heavily pegged to oil and gas, it’s dawning even on the “drill, baby, drill” types that they need a new pitch. 

When the Donald Trump administration held a “fire sale” for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the last kamikaze days of that presidency, the sale was a bust 

Likewise, when Alaska Republicans demanded the feds hold an oil and gas auction earlier this winter in Cook Inlet, south of Anchorage, only one bidder showed up 

“Alaska’s motto of ‘North to the Future’ should be re-examined, because I don’t think it has much meaning now,” a retired BP oil executive fumed after the ANWR sales went kaput. 

But a funny twist is now happening. With oil drilling waning, old-growth logging passé and big mining blocked, Alaska’s Trumpy governor has gone whole hog into carbon. 

Not harvesting carbon (though he’d still love to keep doing that, he says). He’s offering Alaska up to the highest bidders as one of the world’s biggest carbon sinks. 

“For decades, Alaska’s economy has depended on the extraction and harvest of natural resources,” wrote the Alaska Beacon in January . “Now, Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy wants the state to make money by leaving trees standing, and by pumping carbon emissions back into the ground.” 

The trees part would involve letting forests go uncut for a century, in exchange for “carbon credits” that can be sold to companies to offset global warming emissions. The second part is iffier – to lease underground caverns, left from past oil drilling, to be used for storing captured carbon (instead of letting it go into the atmosphere, where it adds to global warming). 

Alaska didn’t invent these ideas, but it brings to them an unmatched scale. For instance, the state has identified 45 million acres of trees it could possibly set aside for carbon credits — an area as big as the entire state of Washington. 

The industry of injecting CO2 underground is newer, but it now has a “gold rush” feel to it because the big climate change bill Congress passed last year dramatically raised the tax incentives companies can get for it. If any state has vast stores of land for such “carbon sequestration” projects, it’s Alaska. 

Critics say all this is “ greenwashing ,” and the governor isn’t serious because he himself is a climate change denier. When a reporter asked him how he squares his disbelief with his evangelistic green proposals, he rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. 

Alaska does know its gold rushes. Maybe 50 years on, after the state was transformed by black gold in the wild pipeline frenzy of the 1970s , it could now replay all that in reverse, in a green rush of workers flocking there to pump the residue from America’s fossil fuel party back into the same ground. 

Oil probably isn’t going down that easy. But I’m flagging this talk from up north anyway, because something sure seems to be shifting. 

Cantwell’s political career almost perfectly overlaps with the aging arc of Alaska’s old economies. For more than 20 years now she’s led filibusters or other efforts against oil drilling in ANWR, against old-growth logging in the state’s vast coastal rainforests, and now against the nation’s most enormous mine. 

If even Alaska’s politicians are suddenly eager for things like carbon sequestration and credits, then maybe the long-talked-about shift toward a cleaner economy really is finally starting to happen? It can’t be that they’re just tired of losing to Maria Cantwell. 

No need to change the state motto, it can still be “North to the Future.” It’s just that, as the climate scientists have been warning, the future isn’t what it used to be. 

DannyWestneat: dwestneat@seattletimes.com. Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region’s news, people and politics.

%d bloggers like this: