House candidates make pro-development pitches at Alaska oil industry conference

four people at podiums
Candidates for Alaska’s U.S. House seat, appearing at Wednesday forum held at an Alaska Oil and Gas Association conference, hold up signs to show their position on the Infrastructure Jobs and Investment Act. Only former state Rep. Mary Peltola, at right, supports the act. From left are Republican Nick Begich, Libertarian Chris Bye and Republican former Gov. Sarah Palin. The forum was held just before the Alaska Division of Elections released results showing that Peltola had won the special election to fill the remaining months in Rep. Don Young’s term. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Shortly before Mary Peltola was announced as the winner in the special election to become Alaska’s sole member of the U.S. House of Representatives for four months, she and the three other candidates vying to succeed the late Don Young for a full term as Alaska made pitches to an oil industry audience on Wednesday. And they touted their abilities to promote the industry nationally.

Peltola, the Democrat who claimed a narrow victory in the special election to fill the remaining months of Young’s term, emphasized her ability to work across party lines and partisan divides.

“What we need to do is really articulate how Alaska does it best,” Peltola said at the candidate forum held on the first day of a two-day Alaska Oil and Gas Association conference in Anchorage.

Alaska has high environmental standards and companies working in the state are socially responsible, she said, but the message needs to spread more broadly. 

“I think that you really need somebody who’s effective at communicating and partnering and coalition-building,” she said.

Former Gov. Sarah Palin, who rocketed to international fame as the Republican vice-presidential candidate in 2008 and through cable and reality TV shows following that, said her experience and connections will benefit Alaska and its oil industry.

“I’m not going to drop names and I’m not a fan of politicians, but I certainly appreciate all the endorsements that I’ve received from those who are in national office. They know that I’m going to hit the ground running. That’s what you need before Alaska goes under, as America (is) on a trajectory headed towards going under. You need a fighter out there who can hit the ground running,” she told the forum audience.

Businessman Nick Begich took a hard line in opposition to environmental groups and cast scorn on calls for a transition to renewable energy, the current permitting process and efforts to increase social responsibility in industry. He was critical of plans to increase carbon sequestration in Alaska’s oil basins, for example.

“Recent developments in Southeast Alaska in timber reveal how some forms of carbon sequestration are actually intended to close off industry and end development,” he said. “While this may appear initially attractive, such actions deny Alaskan families quality jobs and our nation with important resources needed for ongoing prosperity.”

RELATED: Mary Peltola becomes first Alaska Native elected to Congress

Libertarian Chris Bye, who earned a spot on the general election ballot after Republican Tara Sweeney dropped out of the race, said he wants to help Alaska do a better job selling itself.

“When I see folks don’t have a firm understanding of what’s occurring what happening up here in Alaska, it makes me question how they make decisions. Because we are probably the largest repository of any resource mined or drilled in North America, as far as the United States is concerned,” he said.

In front of the industry audience, Palin was put on the defensive for one of her signature policies as governor – the passage of a new oil tax regime that increased state oil tax rates according to oil prices.

The new system, called ACES, for Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share, was akin to a windfall tax. Alaska revenues increased dramatically during under ACES, as oil prices hit record levels during Palin’s term.

two women at podiums
Former Gov. Sarah Palin listens as former state Rep. Mary Peltola speaks the AOGA candidate forum. (Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Even though it was passed 14 years ago and later replaced by a more industry-favorable bill championed by Palin’s successor, ACES remains a sore point for oil and gas companies.

Asked whether she would support a similar bill or policy in the future, Palin said she had been adhering to her constitutional duty when she and supportive legislators created the ACES tax policy.

“Bottom line, Alaskans own the God-given natural resources — not the oil companies. And bless your hearts, I love you guys. You know I’m on your side. Drill, baby, drill. I coined that. That’s what I’m known for across the nation, across the world: Drill, baby, drill,” she said, repeating a campaign chant from 2008. “You know where I am on energy. But the resources belong to Alaskans. Under our constitution, I put Alaskans first.”

Peltola, a legislator at the time who voted with other Democrats in favor of ACES, was also called on to explain her support. She said she would have to examine any future tax proposal before deciding whether to support or oppose it.

“I do think it’s important that Alaska gets its fair share. But I also think it’s important that we have a stable jurisdiction for companies to know that they can invest in and we aren’t going to have oil taxes change every year or two years,” she said.

As she has during the course of the campaign, she spoke kindly of Palin.

“I would also like to note that Gov. Palin and I were at the forefront of making sure that during those high-oil years Alaskans were benefitting with additional money to the dividend to pay for those higher prices in home heating cost,” Peltola said, referencing a special $1,200 payout that was added to the 2008 Alaska Permanent Fund dividend.

Begich used the ACES debate to differentiate himself from his rivals.

“At the end of the day this tax regime took 85 cents out of every dollar past a certain point. We have another name for that. It’s called nationalization, “ he said, drawing out the word. “We see it in Venezuela, in Zimbabwe and in other third-world nations. And folks on this stage voted to do that to you. That’s wrong.”

The candidates showed varying attitudes toward renewable energy, but all said oil and gas will be important to Alaska for the foreseeable future.

“Even with the advances into renewable energy and transitioning into renewable energy for decades to come, people are going to need fossil fuels. Alaska should remain a consistent supplier,” Peltola said.

Begich referred to a statement he attributed to Tesla founder Elon Musk. “Without oil and gas, we threaten the very foundations of civilization itself,” Begich said.

Events with candidates running for governor and for U.S. Senate are scheduled to be held Thursday at the AOGA conference.

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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