Senate candidates spar over resources, federal overreach

Alaska’s major Senate candidates stuck with what’s got them where they are while debating resource development issues as Election Day closes in.

Former state Attorney General and Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan took as many shots at Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and President Barack Obama as he did at Sen. Mark Begich. He continually attempted to link the three and pressed Begich on a voting record he claims is in-step with the administration’s positions, a record Begich continually denied.

At the Oct. 23 Anchorage debate sponsored by the Resource Development Council for Alaska, Begich attempted to highlight instances in which he has opposed federal agencies and pushed for development, particularly North Slope oil and gas work.

Sullivan’s campaign has largely focused on improving the resource development climate in Alaska.

Along with current senior Alaska U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sullivan said, “We will shift the policies — move forward on pro development policies and roll back the Obama administration’s anti-resource development policies which by and large my opponent has supported.”

His history of fighting “federal overreach” and the Environmental Protection Agency while leading the Department of Law and DNR in Gov. Sean Parnell’s administration is evidence of the principles he would take to the Senate, Sullivan said.

He instituted a policy that had the State of Alaska intervene in federal lawsuits attempting to halt development projects and proposals as attorney general, he said, “so we’d have a seat at the table.”

The Alaska Senate race will play a large role in determining which party controls the Senate. If Republicans take control, Murkowski, now the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, would take the chair of the committee that oversees the Interior Department budget.

The two agreed that states should have automatic standing in such lawsuits so their interests are properly represented. They also agreed that the Endangered Species Act is “broken” and states should be a part of the listing decision.

Sullivan took the issue a step further and said threatened and endangered listings under the act that are based on habitat and climate change projections “are used to shut down resource development.”

The Pebble mine proposal, one of Alaska’s most controversial development projects for years, is a topic that separates Begich and Sullivan.

Begich reiterated his position that Pebble — which would likely be one of the world’s largest surface primarily copper mines in the most productive sockeye salmon-rearing watershed — is “the wrong mine in the wrong place.”

He is the only member of Alaska’s congressional delegation to officially oppose the project.

The EPA’s pending action to ban a large mine based on its authority under the Clean Water Act wetlands section before the Pebble Limited Partnership formally releases a plan has become a focal point for conservatives demanding restrictions to executive power.

Begich treaded lightly on the Pebble question, saying his position is based on the specifics in this instance and that he would do what he can to prevent the broadening of the agency’s power that some have feared could result.

He added that Bristol Bay-area residents were pushed to request the EPA’s help in halting mine development because “they did not feel the state was responding to their desires or their questions.”

Sullivan said the EPA has not made it clear where it derives its authority to ban a proposal prior to wetlands permits being applied for.

“This is not up to the community,” he said. “This is the law; what is in the law — what is in the Clean Water Act.”

While Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act gives the EPA administrator authority to deny wetlands permits for projects that the agency determines will have an “unacceptable adverse effect” on drinking water or fish and wildlife habitat, it does not specify at what point in a project’s progression that authority kicks in.

If the 404(c) process is completed to prohibit Pebble, it will be the first time the EPA has used the provision to stop a development proposal before a plan is released.

Sullivan said that while Begich says the use of the power is very specific, it sets a “very dangerous” precedent. Similar action could be taken anywhere in the state, he said.

“My record is one of fighting the EPA,” Sullivan said. “As senator, I would make it clear in legislation what we already think is clear in legislation,” that the EPA doesn’t have the authority to block development as it is trying to do in the Pebble case.

When asked why he thought federal agencies are actively opposing development under the Obama administration, Sullivan left little room for doubt.

“Harry Reid and Barack Obama, some of their biggest supporters are also some of the biggest anti resource development — in many ways radical environmentalists — in the country,” Sullivan said.

Begich said the problem with Sullivan attempting to link him to the president is that President Obama is halfway through his second term.

“I know he wants to run against Obama but he’s gone in two years and this is about a six-year Senate seat and Alaska’s interests,” he said.

Begich touted projects in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska — ConocoPhillips’ CD-5 and Greater Moose’s Tooth-1 oil projects — as proof of work he has done to help Alaska development. Both projects have been slowed by the demanding federal regulatory process, but are moving forward.

“We’ve been successful in cutting through the red tape to get CD-5 moving,” Begich said.

Combined, the projects are expected to produce 46,000 barrels per day.

Sullivan said opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for development is imperative to increasing Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, or TAPS, throughput, something he said is critical for the nation, not just Alaska. He criticized Begich for not getting legislation to open ANWR through the Senate despite Democrats holding the majority.

“I think the most important thing we can do is retire Harry Reid as Senate majority leader,” Sullivan said. “He has said repeatedly he will never open ANWR. He will never compromise on ANWR.”

On the state side, Begich refused to answer how he voted on the Aug. 19 Ballot Measure 1, Alaska’s oil tax referendum. He said the voters resolved the issue and now policymakers need to make sure the current tax structure works for the state. When pressed by the moderator, Begich said: “Here’s the problem on that bill that went to the voters. Two sides went into their corners and the Legislature couldn’t resolve it. I will bet you right now come this session or next this issue will be back on the table.”

Sullivan noted his work as DNR commissioner to help draft Senate Bill 21, the oil tax reform bill. However, he said the failure of House Bill 77, a controversial piece of water rights legislation that he championed while in the Parnell administration, was simply the political process at work. He said more bills like HB 77 are needed at the federal level.

“It was meant to streamline and make more efficient, timely and certain our permitting system (and) prevent outside groups from holding up water reservations and it didn’t limit the public process, and it didn’t get through the Legislature; that’s democracy,” Sullivan said.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/18/2016 - 9:14am