Guest Opinion: Seattle and Alaska in another sibling fight

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A barge carries goods from the Port of Seattle toward Alaska.

Inextricably linked and worlds apart, Alaska and Seattle are the siblings that need but don’t necessarily like each other.

The ongoing flap over oil drilling in the Arctic and parking Shell oil-exploration vessels at the Port of Seattle has highlighted and inflamed this unique relationship. There are probably no two states that are as interconnected as Washington and Alaska. Alaskans depend on supplies and heavy equipment arriving from Seattle and we have always depended on and benefited from the rich natural resources to be had in Seward’s Icebox.

Beginning with the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s, the ports of Puget Sound became the staging ground and jump-off place for people seeking to strike it rich — revving up a regional economy then suffering from recession.

And then came the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909, when over 3 million visitors came to the gateway to Alaska. Today’s visitor to the University of Washington campus can easily see the lasting impact of the building boom that occurred in preparation for the Exposition.

Much later in the century, in the 1970s, Alaska provided oil to a nation brought to its knees by OPEC as gas rationing and shortages threatened the entire economy. North Slope crude oil began to flow. Seattle supplied labor — as well as construction material and equipment — to trans-Alaskan pipeline construction.

Alaska has also provided us with plentiful seafood and the best-managed fishery in the world. For decades, local college kids found jobs in Alaska fishing and working in canneries. But, perhaps in a way that echos today's attitudes toward Alaska's energy resources, there was a time when locals in Seattle thought the fishing fleet was done. There were those who thought transitioning away from the industrial maritime sector was simply a sign of the times.

That was 20 years ago. Today, fishing is booming and homeporting the Alaskan fishing fleet is a source of cultural pride and family-wage jobs in Seattle. And local kids can still spend a summer making good money in the industry.

We have other bonds that unite us too — lawyers, health care, accountants, education, hotels, restaurants — even the Seahawks, Mariners and Sounders. More than 895,000 people will pass through Seattle this year on their way to Alaska on 192 cruise ships. And of course, Alaska Airlines was born there and raised here.

You might think the deep economic and cultural ties between the two states, forged over a century, would also translate into political cooperation.

You would be wrong. These connections among mariners, miners, loggers and hunters, do not seem to translate so well in the political realm. Our two places might as well be on the other side of the planet.

Alaska has given us Sarah "Drill, baby, drill" Palin and leaders in Seattle who sometimes appear determined to out-Portlandia Portland.

Our legislatures sometimes battle as well. When there was a proposal in the Washington Senate in 2007 to impose a container tax on containers moving through Washington ports, the Alaskans sent legislators to Olympia threatening a new tax on oil coming to Washington from the North Slope. The Alaska Legislature also passed a resolution opposing the tax on the basis that it would raise the cost of living for small communities that couldn’t afford it. Both sides stood down, understanding that each needed the other.

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Terminal 5, which is being redeveloped, in 2009. Credit: a href=

The current controversy about global impacts and the Terminal 5 lease allowing Shell to base its ships there has led to an Alaskan legislator requesting Washington State shut down Boeing — due to the company’s greenhouse gas footprint and lifecycle emissions of it planes. It is inevitable that there are more sibling spats to come.

The latest energy policy by the Obama administration has angered Alaskans and environmentalists alike — obviously for different reasons.

So here we are, Red State and Blue State. Extractors, consumers, suppliers, inextricably linked, agreeing on little except our mutual need for each other. Seattle will continue to benefit from natural resource rich Alaska and Alaskans will continue to need products shipped through our ports on deep draft vessels, tug and barges for their very survival. In Seattle, we like to think of ourselves as high tech, beyond petroleum and pioneers of the new economy. The reality is Alaskan resources continue to form the base of our economy and are a main reason why we’re here in the first place — and we’re not at all happy about it. We shouldn't, however, drift into smugness toward Alaska, especially when it is hurting from the difficulties in the energy sector.

But, even though our politics may diverge, one thing is obvious: We need and depend on each other much like a family. And even though family can be irritating, you don’t turn your back on your family.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer is the vice president for external affairs in the Seattle office of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.