The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) now confirms that another important Alaska fishery is declining due to successive marine heat waves. First, there was the loss of 10 billion snow crabs, and the closure of the once profitable Bering crab fishery; Now we know that climate change (warming seas) is the reason salmon are crashing in the Yukon and Kuskokwim watersheds. Each of these fisheries is the lifeblood of many Alaska communities and villages. From Yukon to Kodiak, from the Arctic to Ketchikan, Alaska’s coastal fisheries now must confront the dual threat of heat waves and ocean acidification.
Although Alaska alone cannot solve the climate crisis and save Alaska’s fisheries, we can do our part to directly address climate impacts. We are still far from the scale and pace of emissions reductions needed to put us on track to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C (the Paris Agreements target). As a result, ocean warming and ocean acidification remain active and pose serious threats to Alaska’s fisheries. Whether it’s concern for oceans, storms, landslides, or wildfires, it’s clear that this is a moment when we need “all hands on deck” to tackle the climate crisis.
One area where Alaska can make a big difference on climate change is by addressing methane leaks. Methane, also known as natural gas waste, traps 80 times more heat than carbon dioxide. It is also important because industrial emissions from Alaska’s oil and gas operations account for about 60% of Alaska’s total greenhouse emissions for 2020. Altogether, this means that although Alaska’s overall contribution to emissions may be small on a global scale, Alaska can still make a big difference because we emit a lot of methane.
Unfortunately, the methane leak watchdog, the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, has repeatedly shown its unwillingness to act. One example occurred when Hilcorp’s gas pipeline in Cook Inlet exploded a few years ago, spewing gas into the atmosphere for months, causing the loss of tens of thousands of barrels of oil production. The AOGCC has taken the alarming position that it is unable to do anything. It was taken to court, and eventually corrected by the Alaska Supreme Court on the scope of its jurisdiction, and the commission still refused to hold Hilcorp accountable.
Since the 1990s, there have been increases in the frequency and intensity of marine heat waves in the North Pacific. Scientists predict that this trend will accelerate, beyond Alaska and globally. In other words, it is not far-fetched to ask which major fisheries will be the next to succumb to climate change?
Perhaps what happens at the UN climate talks could spur some proportionate action here in Alaska. As the Washington Post notes, “several of the world’s largest oil companies (including ExxonMobil) recently announced that they intend to reduce methane emissions from their wells and drilling operations by more than 80% by 2030.”
According to research by a team of scientists from the Environmental Defense Fund and several US universities, cutting methane emissions in half by 2030 could slow the rate of global warming by more than 25% and start a path to preventing a temperature rise of half a degree Celsius. By 2100. Moreover, according to the International Energy Agency, the oil and gas industry is able to eliminate more than 75% of methane emissions using existing and known technology. Taken together, this means that taking action on methane is not only hugely important in tackling the climate crisis, but it is eminently actionable.
If the oil and gas industry is now seeking to position itself as a problem solver on the international stage, why not do the same here in Alaska? By law, the state considers any non-emergency release of oil and gas (venting or flaring) lasting longer than one hour to be potential “waste.” Thus, we already have one main tool in our toolbox.
For the sake of Alaska’s fisheries, Alaska can certainly become part of the solution to the climate crisis by joining industry-backed international action to reduce methane emissions. Now is the time for the Australian Oil and Gas Commission to take its legal obligations seriously and start reining in non-emergency methane flaring and discharges. As mentioned earlier, Alaska has too much methane to make a difference.
Linda Behnken She is a commercial fisherman and executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association. Kate Troll He has more than 22 years of experience in coastal management, fisheries, and climate/energy policy, and is the former Executive Director of the United Fishermen of Alaska. In 2018, Kate, along with 400 Alaskans, petitioned the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to reduce methane emissions.
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