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Group submits petition books, setting stage for costly fight over Alaska oil taxes

Supporters of the group "Vote Yes for Alaska’s Fair Share," prepare to turn in signature booklets for ballot measure Friday, Jan. 17, 2020 at the Alaska Division of Elections in Anchorage. The ballot measure would apply to the North Slope’s large, legacy fields and would bring in about $1 billion extra in production taxes annually, according to the group's chairman Robin Brena. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

A group seeking to raise taxes on major oil producers in Alaska on Friday rolled a flatbed dolly stacked with boxes of signature books to the Alaska Division of Elections office in Anchorage, setting the stage for what’s expected to be another costly political battle.

Members of the “Vote Yes for Alaska’s Fair Share” group said they turned in 44,624 signatures, well beyond the amount needed to put the measure before voters.

If it passes, the measure would bring the state close to $1 billion extra in oil-production taxes each year, supporters say. The money could be used to shrink the Alaska’s giant deficits while keeping state services in place, they say.

“We have given away billions of dollars (to the industry),” said Robin Brena, an oil and gas attorney and chair of the group, speaking to a crowd of supporters at the elections office.

The two-page text of the ballot measure explains it would affect the taxes applied to the state’s three largest oil fields, Prudhoe Bay, Kuparuk and Alpine.

BP Alaska, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil Corp. are the major leaseholders at Prudhoe Bay. ConocoPhillips is the major owner at Kuparuk and the Alpine.

A group called OneAlaska formed to fight the measure in November. It is led by small-business owners, a union leader, a Native corporation chair and others. Much of its funding so far is coming from oil companies, primarily ConocoPhillips and Hilcorp Alaska, the company that plans to buy BP’s assets in Alaska.

The ballot measure would boost production taxes on the oil industry by more than 300%, OneAlaska said in a statement on Friday. Such a spike would force any industry to cut back on its investment in the state, the group said.

Gary Dixon, secretary and treasurer with Teamsters Local 959 and part of the anti-initiative group, said in a statement that his organization opposes the ballot measure. The union represents construction workers, truck drivers and others.

“My job is to protect jobs for Alaskan workers, full stop,” said Dixon. “This ballot measure will make it harder for Alaskans to get and keep jobs, from Kotzebue to Ketchikan.”

BP's Parker Rig 272, viewed from the Lisburne Production Center in Prudhoe Bay on Friday, May 22, 2015. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Roger Marks, a former petroleum economist for the state who has no affiliation with the anti-initiative group, said if the measure was already in effect, the industry would pay about $1.4 billion this year.

Ed Davis, a retired engineer for Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, was one of the supporters at the Division of Elections on Friday when “Vote Yes for Alaska’s Fair Share” turned in its petition books. Davis said the oil industry can afford to pay more.

Davis collected more than 800 signatures in Fairbanks, during a cold streak when the worst temperatures plunged to about 40 degrees below zero. He stood outside near the solid waste facility where people bring their trash, he said.

The oil industry does not deserve all the breaks and benefits it gets in Alaska, he said.

Bill Popp, a co-chair of the anti-initiative group and president of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp., said the measure would hamper the state’s economic recovery.

It would hurt profit margins in the state’s oil industry and force companies to look outside Alaska for better investments, he said. Oil companies are now investing in new fields in Alaska. But the “massive” tax increase will push investment away, he said, adding that will have devastating impacts on the state economy.

“This (initiative) is another simplistic approach to a complex problem,” Popp said. “To once again say, ‘Tax the oil industry, it will solve all our problems,’ is such an ill-advised idea. It isn’t going to work.”

Alaska is one of the most profitable places for the oil industry to operate, and will remain so if the initiative passes, members of the initiative group say.

Jane Angvik, a primary sponsor of the measure and former Anchorage Assembly member, said ConocoPhillips has boosted dividends for its shareholders. Meanwhile, the state — now facing a $1.5 billion deficit — has reduced Permanent Fund Dividends paid to Alaskans.

At right, Jane Angvik, a primary sponsor ’Vote Yes for Alaska’s Fair Share, ’ turns in signature booklets for the ballot measure Friday, Jan. 17, 2020 at the Alaska Division of Elections in Anchorage. The measure would apply to the North Slope’s large, legacy fields and would bring in about $1 billion extra in production taxes annually, according to the group's chairman Robin Brena. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

The extra money generated by the tax could support higher PFD payments, initiative supporters say.

The last ballot fight over oil-production taxes in 2014 produced more than $14 million in political spending, with the oil industry vastly outspending opponents. The oil industry won that battle with 53% of the vote.

Oil companies and partners spent about $145 for each supportive vote, according to a review of state records. The losing side spent about $7 per vote.

In the current oil tax battle, the two sides have so far raised about $300,000, according to reports.

Members of the “Fair Share” group said Friday they expect the measure to go before voters in the November election.

The Division of Elections still must certify that the group has 28,501 signatures from registered Alaska voters in at least 30 of the state’s 40 House districts, they said. The group said it met requirements in 36 House districts.

The measure’s changes to taxes at the three major fields include:

• The gross minimum production tax, which has gone into effect in recent years under low oil prices, would increase from 4% to between 10% and 15%, depending on the price of oil.

• The net production tax, which has kicked in when oil prices are higher, would eliminate the per-barrel credit provided to oil producers.

• Tax returns and other documents provided by oil and gas producers would be public information, instead of confidential documents.

• Companies won’t be allowed to deduct costs at other fields from tax payments at the three major fields, Brena said.

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