Former state House Majority Leader Ralph Samuels announced Tuesday he's running for governor next year. That sets up a Republican primary fight among Samuels, Gov. Sean Parnell and Anchorage attorney Bill Walker over Alaska's relationship with the oil industry.
Samuels was a big critic of the 2007 increase in taxes on oil companies pushed by then-Gov. Sarah Palin. Parnell supported it as Palin's lieutenant governor and still does.
On Tuesday, Samuels described the vote to increase oil taxes as a "feeding frenzy."
"As governor I'll work to encourage economic development. We'll look at the current tax structures to determine whether or not there's an opportunity to stem the recent rapid decline in oil production and oil exploration in Alaska," Samuels said, making the announcement after an Anchorage luncheon of the Resource Development Council.
Samuels also sparred with the Palin/Parnell administration on its approach to trying to secure a natural gas pipeline to the Lower 48. Samuels was the only member of the Legislature to vote against the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, which the petroleum companies operating on the North Slope opposed. That 2007 law led to a license and a commitment of $500 million in state support for an effort led by pipeline company TransCanada Corp. to pursue the multibillion-dollar project under conditions set by the state.
The oil companies BP and Conoco Phillips have a competing project called Denali.
Samuels said Tuesday he "fundamentally disagrees" with the AGIA process but it's the road Alaska is on. He said he would engage with the industry interests to figure out how to move forward from here on the gas pipeline issue. That includes talking with TransCanada and Exxon Mobil, which is working with TransCanada.
Many critics of AGIA and the oil tax increase have pushed for Samuels to run, even portraying him as something of a savior. Republican congressional candidate Andrew Halcro wrote on his blog about Samuels last week under the headline "Who can save Alaska in 2010?"
Samuels was the only person in the state House to stand up to Palin and Parnell's belief that they "were better suited to define private sector risks than the private sector," Halcro wrote.
Samuels, 48, held a South Anchorage seat in the state House for six years. He stepped down in 2008 and became an Alaska-based vice president for government and community affairs for tourism giant Holland America Line. He worked the previous 28 years for PenAir, a regional airline.
Samuels said Parnell is popular and won't be easy to beat in a Republican primary. Parnell has now had the job for more than four months, having taken over after Palin's resignation at the end of July.
Anchorage pollster and political consultant Dave Dittman put out a poll of 274 Anchorage residents in October in which 81 percent approved of the job that Parnell was doing as governor.
Dittman, who said Tuesday he'll be working with the Samuels campaign, expects Palin's legacy will be a big factor in the governor's race.
"I do think it will be kind of a referendum on her three years in (office)," Dittman said.
Parnell was participating in the Governor's Annual Christmas and Holiday Open House in Juneau Tuesday. His campaign manager, David O'Connell, had a short statement on Samuels' candidacy.
"The governor welcomes the competition and will continue focusing on Alaska's economy and making our state a better place to live, work and raise a family," he said.
Rival candidate Walker said in a written statement that Samuels' candidacy will give Alaskans well-defined choices in the Republican primary, and that "if Alaskans are ready to take back the control of our economic and energy future, then I will emerge as the Republican candidate in the general election."
Walker is running on a platform focused on securing an "all-Alaska" natural gas pipeline from the North Slope to Valdez, rather than the route through Canada that TransCanada and the Denali project are considering.
Gerald Heikes of Palmer is also in the Republican primary, which will be held next August, with the winner running in November's general election.
Find Sean Cockerham online at adn.com/contact/scockerham or call him at 257-4344.