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Residents of rural Alaska brace for heat-up in fuel prices

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An oil tanker on the water in front of a scenic Alaskan view.

In rural Alaska, the gas that powers electricity-producing generators is delivered by barge or air. Brevig Mission residents expect prices to climb when the next delivery comes. Tashka/Getty Images

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Fuel prices tend to run high in Alaska’s rural and roadless communities. For a short time this spring, fuel costs in some rural villages were actually lower than in the state’s largest cities. Now that summer has set in, however, that’s changing.

In rural Alaska, the fuel that powers generators for electricity and that people use to power their boats and all-terrain vehicles is delivered either by barge or air.

In Brevig Mission, 65 miles north of Nome on the Bering Sea coast, Elmer Seetot said he and his neighbors have been paying about $4.25 per gallon for gasoline. Seetot relies on gas to power his boat to hunt marine mammals.

“We just got done doing spring harvest catching bearded seals and walrus, so that was a successful year for us.” He uses a boat with a gasoline-powered engine to find those animals; he’ll also use his boat to go fishing in the coming weeks.

Roughly 430 people live in Brevig Mission. Now that summer is in full swing, so is the subsistence season, and people need gas to fish and pick berries. In the fall, they’ll hunt moose and caribou to stock their freezers for the rest of the year. 

The fuel that people in Brevig Mission have been buying was delivered last year. Seetot said everyone in his community is scrambling to fill as many gas cans, barrels and drums with the cheaper fuel before the price goes up with the next barge delivery. The deliveries come once in the summer and again in the fall before the Bering Sea freezes over again for winter.

“I think in a few more months, whenever we get a barge, we’re gonna be paying $6.50,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t be surprised if the fuel price in his village exceeds $7.

Crowley is the company that delivers 65 million gallons of gas to 300 rural communities in Alaska. Prices could fluctuate even after it’s delivered in some villages. Crowley declined an interview but said fuel deliveries would move forward as planned this year.

Some villages can’t receive a barge, however. In Noatak, everything that comes and goes does so by air. 

“Some people pay, like, $1,000 to $1,400 a month for electricity,” said Lucy Hall, the tribal clerk for the village of Noatak. The Iñupiaq village is situated 70 miles north of the Arctic Circle. “We have to cover the fuel costs for the generators.”

In Noatak, diesel powers the generators that keep the lights on. There are trees, but collecting firewood requires fuel, so diesel is also used for home heating. Sixty-seven-year-old elder Hannah Onalik said the situation is dire. 

Hilda Booth and Elder Hannah Onalik (center) work at the local store in Noatak, where they have seen gas prices skyrocket to over $18 per gallon in recent months. Lucy Hall (right) is the tribal clerk in the small Arctic village, where fuel must be delivered by airplane. (Courtesy Lucy Hall)

“Long ago, we had no electricity. We depended on the land, on the river for fish, and we bought our Coleman lights, Coleman stoves and we lived on those,” she said. “Nowadays, everything is with electricity and all that. We depend on that, so it’s very, very, very hard today.”

In Noatak, residents said they saw an $18 per gallon price tag for gas in June. A 50-gallon drum of diesel costs over $800.

Winter is always coming in Alaska. That’s why people like Amber Vaska are scrambling to help before summer’s end. Vaska is the executive director of tribal government and client services for Alaska’s Tanana Chiefs Conference, a nonprofit corporation that provides support services to tribes in Alaska’s Interior region.

“I think our people in rural Alaska are just gonna be in a desperate situation,” Vaska said. “All of their commodities — the price is just gonna roar outrageously in the coming months.”

Earlier this year, Alaska’s state Legislature did pass an energy relief payment for qualifying residents. When the roughly $650 will hit bank accounts hasn’t been announced yet. In rural villages, it’s unclear how far that money will stretch when it does.

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