Environment: Alaskan anxiety —Saleem H Ali
For Pakistanis, such matters may be less significant than Governor Palin’s strong religious roots that will undoubtedly affect her foreign policy position. The Israeli press has reported that she is an ardent Christian Zionist who has a flag of Israel in her office
Energy and the environment were clashing forces in US Senator and Republican presidential nominee John McCain’s selection of Alaska’s governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. It seems that initial promises of an environmental agenda from the ‘maverick’ senator are being trumped by political expediency over oil prices.
Conservation appeared to be making a comeback among conservatives this year, with the publication of staunch conservative Newt Gingrich’s Contract with the Earth, which even boasts a foreword by ecological doyen EO Wilson. However, McCain’s embrace of a conservative Alaskan as vice presidential nominee raises questions about his commitment to conservation.
While Senator McCain is admired by environmentalists for acknowledging the seriousness of climate change, his score with the League of Conservation voters remains highly varied, ranging from 6 to 56 (on a scale of 100). Governor Palin has not been rated on this scale, but Alaskan politics have always been a textbook case of campaigns that pitch the economy versus the environment.
The choice of Palin as the running mate should prompt voters and the international community alike to inform themselves about resource conflicts in the self-proclaimed “last frontier” of America.
Alaska has changed with the times in remarkable ways since it was bought from Russia for a paltry sum of $7.2 million in 1867 — around 1.9 cents per acre (the purchase price would amount to around $105 million current dollars).
For Americans, the state has always been a perplexing paradox. It is the largest in size but smallest in population density; it has the coldest climate but also the most active system of fiery volcanoes; and it has been the largest source of a non-renewable resource like oil but also the largest source of renewable resources such as timber and fish.
The state is home to the largest percentage of Native people in the country with over 15 percent of the population of indigenous Alaskan lineage but unlike much of the Lower-48 states, there were no treaties signed between settlers and local, leading to a legal settlement in 1971.
Adding to the list of Alaska’s extremes is another unlikely statistic. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory, the state is the emitter of the largest amount of toxins into the air, land and water of any state in the union. This dubious distinction has been held by the state for six years in a row since 2001 and raises alarms when mentioned to Alaskans as well.
What could possibly be so polluting?
The usual suspect is the North Slope’s oil, but this is in fact extracted without much incident and piped down 1500 miles to the port of Valdez. Problems may arise once the oil is on the tankers, but those incidents are relatively few and far between since the devastating Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 which spilled nearly 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound.
Alaska’s toxic release inventory top spot owes largely to one particular operation on the extreme north-western coast of the state, more than five hundred miles from the nearest oil installation. Close to the shores of the Chuckchi Sea in this desolate wilderness is the world’s largest zinc mine. Named after the pet of a local aviator, the Red Dog mine is a monumental achievement of engineering but also a stark reminder of the impact resource extraction can have. An estimated 500 million pounds of “waste rock” is dumped each year into permitted facilities and are stored in stockpiles and mine tailings on site.
Nevertheless, the mine provides precious livelihoods for an extremely remote community and is partially owned by one of the native Alaskan corporations (The NANA). From 2000 through 2006, the mine produced an estimated $6 billion worth of zinc, lead and silver — about 80 percent of the value of all mine output in Alaska. Sentiments regarding the mine are widely divided between those who are benefiting from the employment and reside in the nearest town of Kotzebue, 86 miles from the mine, and those who are in small villages in closest proximity to the mine.
Governor Palin has supported mining across Alaska and resisted efforts to list species such as the polar bear or beluga whales as endangered as such listings may hamper mineral development. In Alaskan politics, contentious issues can arise around resource development far more acutely than at the national scene. This is evidenced by the struggle between various Native groups and environmentalists over the Pebble Mine project adjoining Bristol Bay, near the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery. Despite her fishing credentials, the governor is a supporter of this project as well.
Support of mining projects should not singularly discredit a candidate’s environmental credentials. However, the nuance and care with which such decisions are made deserve greater scrutiny by the public as a mark of leadership versus positional entrenchment. In coming months, Alaskan resource management may well become an unlikely touchstone of presidential acumen for voters.
For Pakistanis, such matters may be less significant than Governor Palin’s strong religious roots that will undoubtedly affect her foreign policy position. The Israeli press has reported that she is an ardent Christian Zionist who has a flag of Israel in her office, even though she has never visited the country. Indeed, the only country she has visited outside North American is Kuwait — the visit was primarily aimed at meeting Alaskan troops serving there rather than to build bridges with Muslims in the Gulf.
Perhaps her love of oil in Alaska might be the common bond with the oil-rich Muslim states of the region. For the moment Governor Palin deserves the benefit of the doubt as she only got her US passport last year. Her foreign policy positions must be closely watched by the world and particularly by hyphenated-Americans such as myself with anticipation and a good measure of anxiety.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning at the University of Vermont and on the adjunct faculty of the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. www.saleemali.net