In Alaska, fuel costs could be deadly
A gallon of unleaded gasoline: $10. Heating fuel: $9.10 a gallon. Electricity: $1.17 per kilowatt hour -- 11 times the national average.
Some heavily taxed European nation or a time in the future when global fossil fuels have grown dangerously sparse?
Try right now in the most remote villages of America’s 49th state.
Soaring oil prices that swelled Alaska’s treasury are now slamming the state, particularly its 170 rural villages.
Gov. Sarah Palin has proposed checks of $1,200 for each resident to relieve the burden, using a surplus from the state treasury. Lawmakers are debating that proposal now.
But in far-flung locales, people expect things to get much worse.
Here in Barrow, the nation’s northernmost city, a few hundred miles west of the country’s largest oil field, Prudhoe Bay, residents pay $4.65 per gallon of gas. And that’s last year’s price, because this season’s barge shipments of fuel have yet to arrive. When the barges come, the price will be closer to $7.
“I’m tired of everyone else harping on $4 a gallon for gas,” said Barrow resident Marvin Olson. “We’ve been paying that for four years when everybody else was paying $2 a gallon.”
High costs are hardly new in many villages, but the situation is becoming dire, and some residents are fleeing for larger areas.
There are more darkened apartments, abandoned before the onset of winter, when minus-50 degrees will be considered a nice day. Villagers are trying to figure out how they will pay for enough fuel to make it to summer. In some areas, the season’s first snow is barely two months away.
Alaskans in rural areas will spend 40 percent of their annual income on energy this winter, compared with 4 percent for the average Alaskan household, according to a University of Alaska Anchorage study published in May.
Alaska is largely roadless, and essential supplies that arrive by barge or airplane cost much more.
The Legislature is considering several lifelines, including Palin’s proposed relief checks.
This would be on top of the oil revenue dividends most residents already receive. Last year’s Permanent Fund Dividend check was $1,654; this year’s projections are close to $2,000.
Palin and some lawmakers said on a recent trip to Barrow that they had tired of the suggestion that Alaska gets more than its share at the federal trough.
“We are taking care of the challenges we have in Alaska on our own,” Palin said. “We are not asking Congress for relief.”
Alaska received $1.84 in federal spending for every $1 the state paid in taxes to Washington, according to the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan organization. The state ranked third, behind New Mexico and Mississippi, in 2005, the last year figures were available.
Access to fuel in Alaska can be a matter of survival.
Boats are used not only for sport but for hunting. Hides are used for clothing and to line whaling boats. The Inupiaq Eskimo whaling community of 4,000 relies, as it has for generations, on the land and sea.
Animal hides hang from lines. Armed hunters troll the Arctic Ocean looking for bearded seals, locally known as oooguruk. Off-road vehicles return home weighted down with fresh-caught caribou.
There are ceremonies in the center of town to celebrate a successful hunt for bowhead whales. The captain of the boat is obliged to share his bounty with others in the community.
At a grocery store two blocks from where the ceremonies are held, a loaf of bread goes for $6; a gallon of milk, $10; a dozen eggs, $4.60; a pound of strawberries, $10; a half-pound of lunch meat, $7.
“We’d probably be on food stamps by now if we didn’t have our land and sea animals,” said North Slope Borough Mayor Edward Itta. “More and more, our take-home pay is going to be spent to buying gas to go get caribou, to go get fish, to go to our camps and gather our food.”
Fuel-driven changes to tradition are already spreading through parts of the state.
Henry Horner lives 300 miles southwest of Barrow in the village of Kobuk. He fears gas could reach $12 a gallon by the fall hunting season.
“Normally I run into six or more boats on the water,” he said. “Where I went on the Kobuk, I was the only one there. I’m still wondering how many of us will be able to go hunting moose and caribou this year.”
Barrow is better off than many Alaskan villages. It gets subsidized natural gas from nearby fields. It has benefited from oil field property taxes that have helped build new schools and municipal buildings these last two decades.
Word of hardships in other isolated villages is slowly making its way to Barrow.
People shell out $10 a gallon for unleaded fuel in Anaktuvuk Pass; those from the state’s southern coastal region pay $9.10 for heating fuel in Kokhanok; and electricity costs $1.17 a kilowatt hour in western Alaska’s Lime Village.
Barrow’s wait for the next fuel shipment, which is due in about a month, usually is a time of relief. This year it’s a source of growing angst: Residents know gas for the next year could be in the $7 to $8 a gallon range.
Said Barrow whaling captain Jacob Adams: “We could be going back to dog teams if we can’t afford the cost of gas for subsistence hunting.”