In election year, U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola walks a complicated path on fisheries and oil drilling

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola of Alaska this week unexpectedly pulled her support for a Republican-led bill that seeks to pave the way for more oil drilling in the state, opening her up to criticism from opponents who claim she’s supporting a pro-Biden agenda.

It was the latest in a series of moves by the Democrat that has led to a mix of reactions from conservation and tribal groups and resource development advocates.

Peltola late last month backed the controversial Donlin Gold prospect, joining Alaska Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan in a friends-of-the-court legal brief expressing support. That effort drew criticism from a tribal group in the region, and praise from industry trade groups. They called the Southwest Alaska mine one of the state’s “most important and necessary economic development projects.”

Also on Wednesday, Peltola introduced legislation in the House to stop the Pebble copper and gold mine in the Bristol Bay region that’s home to the world’s largest commercial sockeye salmon fishery. That move drew widespread applause from conservation and tribal groups, and opposition from the mine developer.

“In introducing this bill, we’re moving to protect our fisheries and streams, water supply, and the deep value that these waters have had to Alaska Natives who have relied on them for thousands of years,” Peltola said in a statement.

Taken together, the series of actions by Peltola underscores the complex path she’s walking as a Democratic candidate in a state that’s largely Republican and pro-development.

Peltola voted “present” on the Alaska’s Right to Produce Act, an abstention. But she had previously supported it as the only Democratic co-sponsor.


The measure seeks to reverse decisions by the Biden administration. It would support future drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. The bill was introduced by Rep. Pete Stauber, a Minnesota Republican.

The bill passed the House, with the support of 209 Republicans and only five Democrats. It still needs to pass the Democratic-led Senate, a long shot.

Peltola couldn’t vote for it because it unexpectedly pitted energy and fisheries against each other, she said in a floor speech Wednesday.

She still supports the bill’s intent, she said. Alaska “can’t afford to be picky” about its energy options, given the high costs for power and heat in the state.

But Peltola said the bill was problematic because it would nullify the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area. It would do that by reversing a Biden executive order that in 2021 had restored an Obama-era withdrawal of the resilience area off the Western Alaska coast.

The resilience area needs to remain in place to help protect fish stocks amid increasing activity and pressure from issues such as climate change, Peltola said.

“By nullifying this area, we are breaking our promise to the tribes and directly harming fishing communities,” she said in the speech. “Alaskans face many challenges and threats to our unique ways of life. We are on the brink of being forced to import natural gas from a foreign country, and our fishermen are in the midst of an economic free fall, coupled with depleted fish stocks.”

Peltola said she attempted to remove the conflict in the bill with an amendment. It failed.

Peltola instead introduced a “clean” bill to carry out the goals of the Alaska-focused drilling measure, while retaining the Bering Sea resilience area. It’s called the Alaskan Energy Production and Fisheries Protection Act.

A representative in Peltola’s office said in a statement Thursday that the lawmaker’s position balances fish with energy.

Peltola’s past support for energy development in Alaska has included supporting ConocoPhillips’ giant Willow oil field approved by the Biden administration last year.

“Any time Mary votes on things that will actually move, she supports development,” said Kaitlin Hooker, with Peltola’s office, in the statement. “That’s why she worked so hard to get Willow approved, why she is open to Donlin, and why she opposes Pebble.”

“In Alaska, living in the past doesn’t work, and Mary knows we’ll never have successful resource development and successful fisheries if we pit them against each other,” Hooker said in the statement. “Mary is the only voice for Alaska in the House, and she has to stick with her guns on what she thinks is right for our state.”

Sen. Murkowski on Thursday defended Peltola’s vote on the Alaska’s Right to Produce Act, Politico reported. She said Alaskans would understand.

“It’s more complicated for people back here (in Washington) who perhaps don’t understand the significance that so many in Alaska place on the fisheries resource,” Murkowski told Politico.

Sophie Swope, head of the Bethel-based Mother Kuskokwim tribal coalition that opposes the Donlin mine, said the sum of Peltola’s actions is befuddling.

When Peltola was campaigning, she sounded “pretty opposed” to Donlin, Swope said. Seeing Peltola now support Donlin in the friends-of-the-court brief is “crazy.”


Swope said she’s questioning her admiration for Peltola, who was raised in Bethel and is the first Alaska Native elected to Congress and the first woman to represent Alaska in the U.S. House.

“I’m honestly just very confused how she could be supportive of preservation advocacy” in the Bristol Bay region, “but completely dismiss the tribes in her own community” in the Bethel region, she said.

As for Peltola’s move to block Pebble, conservation and tribal groups expressed strong support for it. The new bill would come atop a protection implemented by the Biden administration, when the Environmental Protection Agency last year took the unusual step of stopping the development.

“We are grateful that Congresswoman Peltola has introduced a bill to ensure that protections for Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine are codified into law,” said Delores Larson, deputy director of United Tribes for Bristol Bay, in a statement Wednesday. “The tribes in the region whose way of life, cultures, and traditions are inextricably linked to the health and prosperity of the Bristol Bay watershed and ecosystem deserve the peace of mind and reassurance that the threat of the Pebble Mine will not return again.”

Mike Heatwole, a spokesman with the Pebble Limited Partnership, which seeks to develop the mine, said the proposed bill would codify a “legally questionable” action by the EPA.

Pebble and the state have challenged the agency’s actions in court, which is the proper place for the issue to be resolved, he said in an email.

“It is poor public policy and will be of great concern to people in Alaska who support responsible development and fair process for evaluating projects,” he said. “It is worth noting that Alaska’s two senators remain very opposed to this EPA action.”

Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom, a Republican running for Peltola’s seat in this fall’s election, said in a statement Peltola is putting party politics ahead of Alaska.


“Her present vote is nothing more than a smokescreen that hurts Alaska’s economy and our people,” Dahlstrom said. “It’s a position that lacks the courage and conviction our state deserves in Washington, all for the sake of scoring political points with Joe Biden.”

Another Peltola challenger, Republican businessman Nick Begich, also weighed in Thursday in a statement on social media.

Begich said Peltola “has made a mockery of our state by flip flopping on Alaska’s most important issues, damaging key congressional relationships, and failing to demonstrate conviction when the chips are down.”

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.