ANCHORAGE, AUG. 9 -- Less than two months ago, the price of North Slope crude oil had slumped to less than $13 a barrel on spot markets, prompting Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper (D) to begin slashing a state budget threatened with a deficit of as much as $500 million.
This week, with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait pushing some North Slope above $25 a barrel, there is talk of a modest budget surplus if higher prices are sustained throughout the fiscal year. Some legislators are even calling for a special legislative session to restore budget cuts.
"This is just not an appropriate way to plan," said Ernie Piper, a Cowper aide. "We shouldn't just wait for invasions to bail out the state budget."
Alaska's fortunes, more than those of any other state, are linked to the world's erratic oil markets. Oil is Alaska's biggest industry, providing through royalties and taxes 85 percent of the state budget and financing a $10 billion fund that this year is expected to provide dividend checks of more than $700 to every Alaskan.
Riding the oil-market roller coaster, the state economy crashed in the mid-1980s, then began to recover. With prices now propped up by the invasion, Alaskans worry they may be seen as war profiteers.
"Typically -- how I can say this without sounding morbid? -- wars and natural disasters are good for the state or any state dependent on oil prices," Dudley Platt, a state petroleum economist, told the Associated Press.
Cowper, wary of a national backlash against Alaska, recently said of some state legislators, "They need to remember there is a world outside Alaska, and public opinion in that world counts." He added, "I think it would be very unwise to call the legislature into special session to cash in on the war."
Cowper also cautioned that oil prices may not hold and that a budget deficit remains possible.
Meanwhile, Alaska's congressional delegation is using the Iraqi invasion to press for stepped-up oil exploration. It wants to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in the northeast, an area where oil companies hope for a major new oil find.
"If we authorized the exploration of ANWR this year, we would see oil exploration starting in 1991," said Sen. Ted Stevens (R), "and assuming a discovery . . . oil into the oil pipeline by 1994."
Environmentalists view the refuge as one of the Arctic's jewels, and keeping it closed to oil development is a major item in the national agenda of the Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club and other such groups.
Damage wrought by the Exxon Valdez oil-tanker spill last year triggered a powerful backlash against oil development in sensitive areas and prompted even the most die-hard oil lobbyists to give up hope temporarily of opening the refuge. Larry Landry of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center in Fairbanks said, "To hail the refuge as the answer to our troubling dependence on foreign oil is an opportunistic exploitation of a political crisis."