A word from the president: Obama Cabinet members tour Alaska

By: Margie Brown, CIRI president and CEO

I had the honor of spending time with members of President Obama’s cabinet when they visited Alaska in August as part of the administration’s “Rural Tour.” The Secretaries of Education, Housing and Urban Development, Agriculture and Energy visited Alaska simultaneously to learn firsthand about the important roles that their respective departments play in our state.

All four secretaries were refreshingly energetic and capable. Cook Inlet Tribal Council’s Gloria O’Neill and Cook Inlet Housing Authority’s Carol Gore organized events to show Education Secretary Arne Duncan and HUD Secretary Shaun Donavan some of the good works CITC and CIHA are performing with the help of the federal agencies these secretaries now lead. I traveled to Bethel to meet with Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize winning-physicist who now leads the Department of Energy. CIRI’s alternative energy development strategy is well aligned with Secretary Chu’s announced vision for a national energy policy.

I believe it became clear to the secretaries during their visit that Alaska faces many of the same challenges that are testing the rest of the nation, but many of these issues are more pronounced in Alaska because of our state’s vast size, extreme climate and low population density.

Consider energy for example. Alaskans pay some of the nation’s highest energy prices, more than $9 per gallon for fuel in some communities. Fortunately, Alaska has a wealth of energy resources-ranging from oil, gas and coal to alternative and renewable energy resources that include wind, hydro, tidal, geothermal and biofuels. Alaska’s energy prices have climbed so high that it has now become an economic necessity for our state to develop its renewable energy resources.

This fact provides a tremendous opportunity for Alaska to become an alternative and renewable energy research and development test bed for for the rest of the nation.

Energy Secretary Chu makes it clear that he thinks it is critical to our national future that we develop alternative and renewable energy resources. He said recently in Time magazine, “(w)hat the U.S. and China do over the next decade will determine the fate of the world.” He went on to say that climate change is causing the move toward alternative energy technologies, and that change is creating incredible economic opportunities.

I agree with Secretary Chu and believe that Alaska’s state leaders must implement responsible energy policies that recognize the integral relationship between energy, the environment and the economy. Implementing sensible state energy policies will encourage and enable individual communities and private developers to leverage Alaskans’ collective ingenuity to develop Alaska’s alternative and renewable energy resources to create new jobs and fight global warming. Our leaders’ end game should be to increase Alaska’s energy independence so that individual Alaskans will not feel as much economic pain during the next oil and gas price spike.

Alaska has an opportunity to regain the status it had as our nation’s domestic energy production leader back when North Slope oil was first commercialized. But Alaska leaders must first take the initiative to pursue strategies that commercialize Alaska’s vast, largely untapped, alternative and renewable energy resources. It is a great opportunity — we should seize it.