Energy Prices Already are Taking a Toll

Printed in the BristolBay Times (October 9, 2008)

Written by Bryce Edgmon

As the winter cold approaches, I’m seeing skyrocketing energy costs already taking their toll on people in village Alaska. During travels throughout my Southwestern district I see it in people’s eyes. They tell me the number of dollars it’s going to take to fill their fuel barrel, and I know they’re not exaggerating when some say they flat out don’t have that kind of money.
A few people have told me that once their $3200 check arrives it might be their opportunity to make the move to Anchorage.
A recent letter to the Governor from Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich and Schools Superintendent Carol Comeau warns of just this scenario. They write about the urgent need for the state to address a growing rural exodus, pointing to the dramatic increase of 400 Alaskan Native students in the Anchorage School District in 2008 as evidence of the shift taking place. To quote from their letter:
“KTUU television reported in its September 15 newscast that enrollment in the Bristol Bay School District has been dropping by about 20 percent and has reached a 20-year low this year of just 140 students. Nome has lost 60 students and many of the Prince William Sound communities are also impacted.”
It’s obvious that the huge spike in living costs is the main reason many families in rural Alaska are making the painful decision to uproot and move to Anchorage, the Mat Su, and the Kenai. In a typical village in my district, a gallon of fuel oil can cost $10, electricity might be 90 cents a kWh, and a gallon of milk is $10. In much of urban Alaska, natural gas prices are the equivalent of $1.60-a-gallon diesel, electricity is 10-11 cents per kWh, and the cost of food and other goods isn’t forced through the roof by soaring airfreight and barge charges.
I’m confident the legislature will continue putting money into the AHFC weatherization programs, the renewable energy fund, big projects like the Susitna Dam, and so on. I will also be pushing to create a fuel subsidy program and expand the PCE and LIHEAP programs. No question this could help many.
But it’s the short term that worries me. Can we do enough quickly enough to stem the outflow of rural residents? I’m doing everything possible to put this dilemma front and center before the legislature. I believe that the preservation of our state’s great diversity depends on it.
As we approach Alaska’s 50th year of statehood next year, we need to pause and consider what the next 50 years will look like. Nobody wants Alaska to end up being a couple of big cities overlooking the remnants of fishing camps and ghost villages scattered throughout what was once rural Alaska. I know I sure don’t.