Speaking Truth to Power

When permafrost melts, Fairbanks, Alaska (Photo: Vladimir Romanovsky)

The Trans-Alaska Pipeline is presently moving about half a million barrels of oil a day from Alaska’s North Slope to the Port of Valdez. Call it 175 million barrels of oil a year. That’s 350 million tons of CO2. About 4-5% of total U.S. CO2 emissions. The impact of all those greenhouse gases falls hardest on the arctic and subarctic. That would be Alaska.

As WC wrote earlier, a group of twenty young Alaskans sued the State of Alaska, appealing the decision of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources not to implement regulations scaling back the monstrous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions generated in and originating from Alaska. The trial court dismissed their case. They appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court. And last week the Alaska Supreme Court finally – 3 years, 5 months after oral argument – ruled and affirmed that dismissal. The court system, the branch of the Alaska government charged with acting when the executive and legislative branches have not or will not, has failed those 20 young Alaskans and their generation.

The majority acknowledged the Alaska Constitution and Alaska Statutes require consideration of the impacts, including environmental impacts, of natural resource development. That majority came close to acknowledging that the relief sought by the young plaintiffs involved balancing those constitutional interests against the development of those resources. Balancing competing constitutional and statutory interests is what courts do; it’s their job.1 But for reasons that Chief Justice Winfree, writing for the majority never seemed to clearly articulate, the majority declined to do their job. “It’s hard, it would be difficult.” But if it were easy, the case wouldn’t be before them. “It makes us uncomfortable.” Being a supreme court justice is all about being uncomfortable; it you’re comfortable in the role, someone’s not doing their job.

Those young Alaskans spoke truth to power. Those in power – in this case, three of the five Alaska Supreme Court justices – chose not listen. That does not make what those 20 young Alaskans wrong. It does not make their truth any less important or the problems they identified any less critical. The decision is, on the other hand, a harsh criticism of the Alaska Supreme Court and the state government of Alaska.

You don’t have to think about it very long to recognize that state policy on oil and gas is insane. For the short term income from royalties and taxes, Alaska is destroying itself. Ned Rozell wrote recently in the Anchorage Daily News that Vladimir Romanovsky, the world’s expert on permafrost, is retiring. Prof. Romanovsky over the course of the last 30 years has documented that in places Alaska’s permafrost is warming as deep as 2,000 feet down. In some areas, the seasonal thaw zone has deepened from a few inches to 15 feet. Much of Alaska, like the house in the photo at the top of this blog post, is built on permafrost – frozen mud and water. And that frozen mud and ice is melting. Infrastructure on top of it is collapsing.

And the three judge majority on the Alaska Supreme Court decided it could or would do nothing. The court acknowledged the crisis:

Concerns about protecting and developing natural resources for the State’s financial support now co-exist with concerns that constitutionally driven resource development creates an existential threat to human life and therefore itself violates individuals’ fundamental rights under Alaska’s constitution.

Sagoonick et al. v. State of Alaska, Opinion 7583, p. 3

But they ended up doing nothing.

The three judges in the majority are the three oldest justices on the court. Two have retired since Sagoonick was argued and the third, Chief Justice Dan Winfree, retires later this year. The two youngest justices dissented. Consider who will suffer the impact of anthropogenic climate change:

Scientific American, February 2022, p. 76

As the infographic shows, the impact of Alaska’s contribution to anthropogenic climate change will fall most heavily on those the age of the plaintiffs or younger. The impact on the three old white men, all over 60 years old, is an order of magnitude lower. If WC were one of those 20 plaintiffs, frustration would be the least of it.

Even if they didn’t win, those 20 young Alaskans spoke truth to power. WC is proud of them, and urges them to keep pressing. The folly and madness, the willful short-sightedness of Alaska’s current resource development, and especially its fossil fuels activities, jeopardizes most of what Alaskans know, love and need about their state.

Ms. Sagoonick and your colleagues: Keep at it. Don’t give up.

1 Development under AS 44.99.100(a) may be undertaken only after consideration of the social and economic views of citizens impacted by the development, and only after adequate protection is assured for Alaska’s environment.


“When an executive agency decision about natural resources is challenged under article VIII, our role thus is limited to ensuring that the agency has “taken a ‘hard look’ at all factors material and relevant to the public interest.”

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