An Open Letter to Alaska LNG and Industry Partners

(This has been posted to FERC’s e-comment file under docket PF14-21-000 and sent to Miles Baker of the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation)

Some of you might know me. I’m one of the white hippies in the Denali Borough who shows up to your meetings and writes on the post-it notes you provide for comment, but more often I sit in begrudging silence projecting some mix of defensiveness and confusion. I don’t say much, because I’m not great with maps or acronyms, which are the communication tools of choice. Still, I try to be pleasant, because it’s easier than being rude, and the teams who host these meetings seem like decent people trying to do a job, and I imagine, given the state of things, you’ve got your own stresses about the security of those jobs, and the tropes of the environmentalists lecturing the fossil fuel industry are tired and fruitless, so we might as well be civil since we’d probably all rather be somewhere else.

Unlike a lot of my neighbors, who are either resigned or ambivalent about the proposed pipeline, I possess just the right combination of civic responsibility and masochism to keep showing up, though my response no longer fits the format of these meetings. I have no further comment on the specifics of the route, the details of one way for a pipeline to cross a river over another. I am not above being impressed by cool engineering, and I don’t doubt that the right set of motivated nerds can find a way to run a high pressure gas line under a highway bordered on one side by a canyon wall and another by a glacial river with mere feet to spare, and I see the gleam in the engineers’ eyes when they think about the challenge. I’m sure it’s a far more appealing challenge than facing yet another room of strangers in a crumbling school gym (while the state pours $57.5 million into this project. Noted) who want to know about things you are not trained or interested in explaining. We’re all in this awkwardness together. Our roles are prescribed.

I am not interested in attempting to quantify the aesthetic value of one vista over another, which has been one of the strategic rallying cries of our community’s opposition to this pipeline. “We’re a tourism-based economy, and pipeline construction will scar the landscapes people come here to see,” we argued, and it’s true, but it’s not the point. We’re not a subsistence community, and our land use is not considered a matter of survival, even if we twist it into an economic argument. We all know that tourists will look at what they’re told they’re here to look at, and if that’s an 800 mile gas pipeline visible beyond one of the final segments of the Alaska Railroad built in 1923, they’ll be looking at a century of Alaskan history condensed into a single snapshot, and who couldn’t turn that into a story? People go to see the bombed-out shells of statues, the unremarkable sites of remarkable battles; anything can be twisted into a marketable resource.

Project managers promise a “visual simulation” of the aesthetic values the pipeline will impact, and one can only hope that the graphics team assigned to that project is not the one who designed my favorite lazy graphic, which reappeared in this week’s presentations: a grid of dollar signs with a diagonal line zigzagging its way optimistically upward, showing the billions the project “could” generate for Alaska. No specific values for the X or Y axes have been added since the graphic’s first use. Given the discussion of an amendment to the state’s constitution to allow for funding projects with such nebulous budges and outcomes, maybe the graph is as accurate a representation as anything: Hand over the money! Anything could happen! Time and revenue will, most likely, move forward!

But back to aesthetics, which is largely about an agreed upon set of sensual values, and hard to capture on a post-it note or a visual simulation. It extends into what people fear when they say this pipeline will “change our way of life,” and it’s disingenuous to claim that LNG will somehow be different in its effects on life and land than any other major development in Alaska’s history. Like the railroad, the highways, and the electric grid, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was a tipping point in the state’s history, and to suggest that this one will be a matter of dropping a line in the ground, covering your tracks, and letting us get back to our lives shows a disregard for the concerns of the people who live here and a gross misunderstanding of the nature of industrial development. I recognize that those changes are not equally unappealing to everyone, but I ask you to recognize that they will be real, and unavoidable. Trails slated as access roads will not be left “better than you found them,” as a representative claimed last week in Cantwell; they will be widened, torn up, and aesthetically damaged.

Wilderness advocate Mardy Murie, among others, wrote in the 70s about the “physical and emotional” differences oil development made in Alaska. History is not a straight line, and none of these developments mark clear beginnings or ends, but they do mark transitional choices. When people express concerns about their trails, wells, berry patches, hunting grounds, or desires for silence, they are not oblivious to the fact that at some level, choices are being made that determine the validity of those concerns, and that they rarely return once lost. These are among the “unavoidable cultural impacts” you refer to; call them what they are, and try to understand the eye-rolling when you talk about “mitigation.”

While I’m not providing the sort of substantive comments the LNG team claims to be interested in, consider too that you might not be asking the questions people along the proposed corridor are interested in answering. I could quote more 1970s environmentalists to illustrate my point; I’m sure you could come up with some more descriptive arrows and dollar signs (dear God, with that budget, I sure hope you can). But we’d still be missing each other’s points, and we wouldn’t have escaped these cliché roles we find ourselves in. This conversation about aesthetics might be a way into the conversation we should be having about values: whose values are we funding? Whose questions are we answering?


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