President Obama on Monday will begin a three-day trip to Alaska to hike on a glacier and call attention to climate change, amid concern from Alaskans and the oil and gas industry that the president merely wants to use the resource-rich state as backdrop to burnish his legacy as an environmentalist.
And also rename North America’s highest mountain.
The president will highlight Alaska’s retreating glaciers to lend urgency to his campaign to reduce carbon emissions, which are blamed for rising temperatures, as he tries to build momentum for a global deal to cut greenhouse gases at a United Nations conference in Paris in December.
Some in the energy industry say that as Mr. Obama approaches his final year in office, he has stopped even paying lip service to fossil fuel production in the U.S.
“There has been a very clear shift in the administration’s position,” said Louis Finkel, vice president of government relations at the American Petroleum Institute. “In the first four years, you heard a lot of rhetoric about an ‘all of the above’ energy policy. The administration’s lost sight of that. The administration clearly is looking at everything they do through a Paris lens.”
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker said he wants to talk to the president about the state’s “economic climate change,” a reference to the drop in global oil prices and the resulting hit to the state’s budget. The governor has been pushing the Obama administration to allow more oil and gas production in Alaska, and has accused Mr. Obama of “declaring war on Alaska’s future” by seeking to block oil and gas exploration in huge swaths of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
“We have an excellent pipeline in Alaska, except it is three-quarters empty,” Mr. Walker, a Republican-turned-independent, told reporters last week. “So I’ll talk to him about what we need to do to put more oil in the pipeline.”
The Inupiat people, who live in ANWR on the northern coastal plain, also oppose Mr. Obama’s proposal because they support energy development on their own lands. Arctic Slope Regional Corp., an Alaska Native regional corporation, owns subsurface rights to land within ANWR, and Kaktovik Inupiat Corp. owns the surface rights.
Alaska state Rep. Benjamin Nageak, a Barrow Democrat who was born in ANWR and is a member of the Inupiat tribe, objected to the president’s proposal when it was announced earlier this year.
“We have thousands and thousands of acres of land that our people in the state of Alaska, especially in ANWR, have title to, and [they] cannot even use that resource to enrich themselves,” Mr. Nageak said. “That is wrong. When you give the people the ability to enrich themselves, you don’t lock up their lands so they don’t do anything else but just sit on it, and nothing comes out of it except the renewable resources that we depend on.”
In New Orleans last week to mark the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the president said the effects of climate change are forcing coastal communities to become more “resilient,” and the government needs to take an array of preventative steps to protect them.
“We’re going to see more extreme weather events as the result of climate change — deeper droughts, deadlier wildfires, stronger storms,” Mr. Obama said.
Some Alaskans are expecting the president to enjoy essentially a three-day-long photo op in their state, where he has only stopped previously to refuel Air Force One on his way to foreign lands.
“He is coming to use us to further his agenda,” Michael Dingman of Anchorage wrote in an op-ed for Alaska Dispatch News. “He is coming with a closed mind, to find areas to take photos and video as a backdrop to make a more convincing argument that development in Alaska should be further restricted.”
Mr. Dingman told The Washington Times in an email: “Many development issues, such as ANWR and mining projects, are crucial to Alaska’s survival and many Alaskans feel as if we are treated as a colony in that sense. Much of our land is either owned or under the control of the federal government and we are always asking permission to do things in our own state. It can be very frustrating to have so little sovereignty in your own state.”
Mr. Obama does plan to show the federal government’s harmony with the state’s native people, the White House announced Sunday, in an iconic and religious way — by renaming Mount McKinley.
The president will have the mountain officially renamed Denali, an Athabascan word meaning “the high one,” to recognize the sacred status of the mountain to Alaska Natives, said the White House.
Alaskans for years have called the mountain Denali, and the word isn’t unheard-of in the Lower 48, in part because “Denali” is the name of the national park in which it is located. But its official U.S. government designation has been Mount McKinley after the 25th U.S. president, William McKinley, who was assassinated early in his second term.
The announcement by Mr. Obama will finalize a name-changing process initiated by Alaska in 1975, but resisted by lawmakers in Ohio, McKinley’s home state.
White House aides say the president won’t be deterred by opposition to his agenda on energy either, which they say comes primarily from fossil fuel interests. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said it’s prudent for the administration to “take the longer-term steps that can prevent the impacts of climate change from getting even worse.”
“And that’s why the president has aggressively pushed the Clean Power Plan, has advocated for some of the investments in clean energy and is working aggressively on the international scene, including in China, to get other countries to make similar commitments to reduce carbon pollution to try to prevent the impacts of climate change from getting even worse,” Mr. Earnest said last week.
The president also is hearing from environmental and progressive groups, angry that the administration moved ahead last week with plans to allow Royal Dutch Shell to drill in Arctic waters.
“Climate leaders don’t drill the Arctic,” said the progressive group Credo in a video.
Mr. Earnest said the president “has committed this country to taking historic steps to transition to a low-carbon, clean energy economy.”
“At the same time, we know that this transition is not going to occur overnight,” he said, adding that relying on domestic oil and gas production is better than relying on imports.
Mr. Finkel, of the American Petroleum Institute, said the environmentalists’ complaints about the administration allowing limited oil exploration in the Arctic are “ironic.”
“The administration’s five-year plan closes off the gross majority of the new resources available to tap into in Alaska, in addition to closing off the Pacific coast, in addition to closing off most of the additional resources in the Gulf Coast,” he said.
He said the administration is imposing a “regulatory avalanche” on the oil and gas industry even though soaring production in the U.S. was an important factor in bolstering the economic recovery over the past six years.
Mr. Obama also will attend a conference on climate and Arctic issues in Anchorage, a meeting organized by the State Department. Climate scientists say they hope Mr. Obama’s visit will focus world attention on changes in the Arctic.
“What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” Karen Florini, the State Department’s deputy special envoy for climate change, told reporters last week. “The Arctic matters hugely for its own sake, particularly for the 4 million people who live in the Arctic, but it matters to everyone because of its impacts beyond the Arctic.”
• S.A. Miller contributed to this article.