Begich, Parnell exchange words over drilling in Arctic reserve

Senator's attempt to bring governor back to talks gets blunt reply.

Associated PressSeptember 26, 2012 

JUNEAU -- A federal proposal that would block oil and gas development in about half the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska has sparked harsh words between the state's Republican governor and its Democratic U.S. senator.

That's even though Gov. Sean Parnell and Sen. Mark Begich are united in their opposition to the plan.

It began with a Sept. 13 letter from Begich to Parnell, intended to nudge Parnell back into negotiations. Parnell, a day earlier, had announced the state would withdraw as a cooperating agency with regards to the reserve, saying the Interior Department had treated the state disrespectfully and calling for a new review process.

"While I am also often frustrated by misguided federal actions, recent developments have proven that persistence and rational arguments pay off for Alaskans," Begich wrote in encouraging Parnell to return to the "negotiating table" and work with the congressional delegation on the issue.

"I recall several meetings with you soon after my election to the U.S. Senate in which you expressed serious doubt about our ability to secure favorable decisions for Alaska," he wrote. "Yet dogged persistence and providing the facts in a rational way to federal decision-makers have produced results."

Parnell responded last week, telling Begich his letter was "neither well taken nor an accurate reflection of the facts." He said that, "contrary to your comments," he has not given up the fight to develop Alaska resources in the reserve. But he said he has little hope the state will be heard.

"The repeated disrespect by the federal government of the State's good faith efforts is unacceptable," he said in his letter, dated Sept. 19. "Certainly, even you would agree the surprise announcement by the (Interior) Secretary of a 'preferred alternative' shutting down millions of acres in NPR-A with no notice or opportunity for the State to review and comment is disrespectful and improper."

He said Begich "can solve" this issue by introducing and getting passed legislation that would allow for reasonable, responsible oil and gas development in most areas of the reserve. He said he looks forward to getting a copy of the bill.

"Actions speak louder than words," he wrote later. "When, or if, you convince the Secretary to reverse his decision and allow for a respectful process with the State, in accordance with the law, and the Secretary withdraws his preferred alternative, please let me know."

Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said the two men can work together for Alaskans but they have distinct differences on some important policy issues, like the federal health care law and "NPR-A lockup." She said the letters speak for themselves in that regard.

Begich, in a statement, said he's as frustrated as anyone with many federal actions. "But at the end of the day, my job is to get results for Alaska. The upcoming decision on NPR-A is critical to development of Alaska's on- and offshore oil and gas resources. That's why the state needs to be at the table to help get the best decision."

There has been speculation about a possible Parnell run against Begich in 2014, but Parnell, who is in his first full term and would face re-election that year, has not announced his plans.

Begich last year began calling on the administration to opt-out of key provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law. The state's education commissioner has said it was important that things be done "right, not just fast," and the state, among other things, was waiting on a decision from the Alaska board of education on new standards for K-12 education to allow it to move forward with a request for a waiver. That decision came in June.

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