Dispatches from Juneau: Anchorage vs. Alaska
On Monday, I watched the Senate Resource Committee talk about natural gas. Apparently there’s a hell of a lot of that stuff. I knew this sort of through cultural osmosis, having lived in Alaska all my life, but when Commissioner-elect of Natural Resources John Boyle spoke about trillions of cubic feet of natural gas swirling around under Cook Inlet, it put me into perspective.
Make me nervous, I’ll tell you what. The only thing that should be under my feet should be dirt and grass and snow and finally bedrock and then, from what I remember from ninth grade geology class, somewhere underneath some kind of big ball of orange molten metal. Then come the other side to China or New Zealand or whatever country occupies Alaska’s opposite coordinates. The fact that there are trillions of cubic feet of gas down there doesn’t, for some reason, tally with the picture of Alaska I’ve built in my head.
Well, the existence of this gas is probably pretty common knowledge for quite a lot of people. To be honest, I never claimed to be anything other than a dumbass, a living example of the Peter Principle – as if Drew Magary had been hit on the head many times. Coincidentally, for most of my childhood I grew up in a bedroom that had sneaky black mold under the floorboards, only to be discovered when we replaced the crappy linoleum and found damp, dripping fungus secreting spores right under my bed. Ever since, when I can’t remember someone’s name or don’t have a good metaphor in a column I’m writing, I blame the form.
My important point is this: Growing up in Anchorage, I always thought of “natural resources” as things that existed in other parts of the state. Oil was hundreds of miles north in Prudhoe, salmon in the Copper River, gold in rugged mountain passes, and Robert Service poems about the Yukon, and hookers and prospectors with names like Suffering Susan McGraw and Deadshot Dan DeWitt. The old adage “Anchorage is 30 minutes from Alaska?” We scoff at it, those of us who live in Anchortown, but it’s true to an extent.
Living in Alaska’s population center skewed my perception of just how resource-rich this state actually is—or was. In Cook Inlet alone, whose waters lap the trails where I cross-country ski and walk my dog, there’s enough natural gas out there to feed even the toughest Hank Hill heads. You could run a million grills, cook a billion sausages and flank steaks on these gas reserves by Judgment Day if we could access them.
For one reason or another, we don’t. From what I heard at the committee meeting, it’s overpriced and there’s not really a confirmed return on investment. Senator Bill Wielechowski (D – Anchorage), in a final statement before the committee and the DNR people present, argued that if we were to access the vast plumes of natural gas beneath Cook Inlet, we would have to think outside the box.
Ever since I got off the plane in Juneau, I’ve reflected on how disconnected Anchorage seems from the rest of Alaska. In that sense, this separation continues in other, more subtle ways. I know I’m not the only one who didn’t know how large Cook Inlet’s gas reserves were, and I’d be willing to bet there are thousands of other anchoragits out there in the same boat as me.
Growing up in Anchorage somehow removed you from the material resources that make our state more than just another piece of land with a few air force bases and a federal highway project. Some people try to mitigate this to a degree by immersing themselves in activities or experiences that touch the heart of “real Alaska” a few times a year. Four-wheel to Kenai and spend a few days wrestling a net or bagging a black bear from Kachemak Bay. You bolt onto the snow machine (never, EVER a snowmobile) and get stuck in powder or sit in your ice fishing tent and pass around a bottle and a blunt. These are things we do to make ourselves true Alaskans.
But unless you live in the bush or work in an area where you need to produce something tangible related to our natural resources, you are missing out. i know i am You lose yourself in a sea of modern conveniences and eventually drift away from what makes the 49th state unlike any other.
If I had the time and the resources, I would take a boat out in the middle of Cook Inlet, position myself anywhere above those trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and look down. It wouldn’t do anything, but at least I’d feel like I was there. In other words, you must consciously expose yourself to Alaska, or Alaska will gradually slip away from you. And when that happens, you might as well live in Texas or something because you’ve lost that sense of cold, untamed charm that makes our state what it is.
None of this is meant to slander Anchorage or suggest that it’s somehow lacking—hell, it’s my hometown. If someone from Palmer or Fairbanks tried to write this article, I think I would leave a rude comment. But it’s important to realize that beyond the city limits, up the Glenn or down the Seward and even further, there’s an entire vast state whose resources consume the electricity we use, the cars we drive, and the foods we eat. We forget that at our own risk.
If we don’t recognize the precarious nature of our energy dependency and the rate at which natural gas is being depleted, we will be in serious trouble. Profit motives aside, the only way to provide our state with short-term electricity is gas under Cook Inlet and on the North Slope – not importing it from abroad.