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Alaska's addiction

Investigations into whether the oil industry has undue influence in the state should come as no surprise.

August 03, 2007

Alaska contains half the population of San Diego spread across an area more than twice the size of Texas. Thus it may have more corruption per capita than any other state.

Its two most important lawmakers, Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, both Republicans, are under federal investigation. The FBI raided Stevens' home in Girdwood, Alaska, this week looking for evidence of improper favors granted by Bill Allen, the former chief executive of the oil services company VECO Corp. who in May pleaded guilty to bribery charges. Young is also suspected of improper dealings with Allen, as is Stevens' son, Ben, a former state senator. One current and three former state legislators are under indictment, and Allen's influence over the capital is alleged to have been so deep that a group of his proteges in Juneau is believed to have had T-shirts made bearing the legend "Corrupt Bastards Club."

It can hardly come as a surprise that oil industry executives may have undue influence over Alaska lawmakers, because they have undue influence over the entire state electorate. Alaskans pay no state income taxes; quite the opposite, they get an annual check from the government, funded by -- you guessed it -- oil revenues. And one can't really blame Alaskans for their eagerness to trash their own environment by drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, given that the state's economy has always been based on the exploitation of natural resources and they're actually getting paid for their complicity with the oil giants.

But the problem with natural resources is that they eventually run out, or the consequences of using them up become unbearable. The driest year on record in Southern California is prompting worries about the effects of global warming, but California has always had droughts; Alaskans are seeing something quite new. Buildings are falling over as the permafrost melts, and roads are buckling. Coastal native villages are vanishing as sea ice melts. The very oil that fattens Alaskans' wallets is contributing to the ruin of their infrastructure.

Alaska gets more than 80% of its revenues from oil, an overreliance on a single industry that can't be sustained -- its oil production is steadily falling. The state is heading for an environmental and economic crisis of which the current political woes may be only a first symptom.

The first step for any addict is to admit to the problem. It's still possible for something good to come of the Allen fiasco, if it prompts Alaskans to admit that they're addicted to oil.

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