Former governor says state must tell development story

MURKOWSKI: Court cases by environmentalists get blame for state's troubles.

February 17, 2010 

JUNEAU -- Former Gov. Frank Murkowski said he holds no grudges against Sarah Palin for pushing him out of public office.

In a wide-ranging telephone interview with The Associated Press, one of Murkowski's first since Palin drubbed him in the August 2006 Republican gubernatorial primary, he also said environmentalists have effectively shut down resource development in Alaska and that the state must respond or its future will be grim.

Murkowski called Palin a "very ambitious young woman," and a populist, who has found within the Republican Party a more fundamental conservative base that's been looking for leadership.

"So the two melded very nicely, and she's been able to move on it," he said. "She knows how to move on it and advance her own initiatives and attitudes."

Palin campaigned on an anti-establishment platform to defeat Murkowski, sending him to the political sidelines for the first time since he was elected U.S. senator in 1980. He served in the Senate until being elected governor in 2002.

Murkowski is also taking some credit for Palin's rise on the political scene. He appointed the former Wasilla mayor to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in 2002, after she lost her first statewide campaign, for lieutenant governor.

"I think, to a large degree, I'm responsible," he said, laughing, when asked what he makes of her and her popularity.

He said he holds no hard feelings against Palin, who talks about having taken on the "good ol' boy" political system in Alaska.

"When you generalize the good ol' boys, that's just part of the politics, it's a one-liner," he said. "It's a good one."

Murkowski has been traveling with his wife since the defeat. He's recently started to return to public life, giving some speeches in the state.

In the interview, Murkowski said environmentalists have been "hugely successful" in fighting development activities capable of creating jobs and helping fund state services.

Part of that success has come in the legal system -- Murkowski said the state hasn't done well in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals -- and the other, he said, in the court of public opinion, which can influence actions the federal government or Congress take on drilling, mining or logging issues.

He gives Gov. Sean Parnell, who took office when Palin quit last July, credit for fighting back; Parnell used his State of the State address last month to lash out at federal actions that seem "at war" with Alaska interests and has pushed for state involvement in environmentalist suits over logging and offshore drilling.

But Murkowski said the state also must do a better job of telling its side of the story because if Alaska doesn't develop its resources, he said, its future does not look good.

Alaska relies heavily on oil revenue to operate, and forecasts project North Slope production declines. He said this underscores the need for gas and other kinds of resource development to keep the state running and economy, going.

"It's an educational process," he said. "The public understands, 'Is it in our best interest to produce this at home and create jobs at home, or to buy it overseas? Who owns America?' "

It's an argument he believes could be used to revive calls to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling or put pressure on President Barack Obama's administration to expand off shore drilling.

"You don't give up. You embarrass the Obama administration by saying, charity begins at home," he said. " ... We have a pipeline less than half-full, the infrastructure's in."

He said he's still bothered by his inability to see through a natural gas pipeline, a project he believes is "paramount" to helping replace the anticipated loss of oil revenue as the North Slope supply is drawn down.

Before he left office, he'd been working on a deal with the three major North Slope producers that also allowed for long-range certainty on tax and royalty terms; he sees that as a critical element to moving any project forward -- along with having all the majors and the state in alignment. But some lawmakers questioned if they were locking themselves in with the long-term deal, and the Legislature never took up the proposed contract. Palin went in another direction.

Officials behind the project that won the exclusive state license -- up to $500 million from the state to reimburse eligible costs -- hope by May to move toward an open season, when they can court producers and try to secure commitments for shipping deals. Estimates call for the project to begin carrying gas by about 2020.

Lawmakers this session are again facing the question of fiscal certainty, and Murkowski said the Legislature needs to "assert itself" on pipeline and revenue issues.

"The corrective action is evident," he said, adding, however, "I think history will show that we had an opportunity in time, and we lost it."

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