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ANWR claims and finger-pointing in Senate race nothing new for Alaska politics

  • Author: Yereth Rosen
    | Arctic
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 30, 2014

In campaign ads and in his stump speeches, Republican Senate candidate Dan Sullivan hits a refrain familiar to Alaska voters when he blasts Democratic incumbent Sen. Mark Begich for failing to open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

"Despite all his promises, we've moved backwards on ANWR energy development," Sullivan says to the camera in one of his television ads.

Alaskans have heard that message before. Politicians' claims of unique powers to unlock the refuge to oil development -- and criticisms of opponents for failing to accomplish that elusive goal -- have been staples of Alaska campaign rhetoric for decades.

In 1990, Republican gubernatorial candidate Arliss Sturgulewski accused Democratic rival Tony Knowles of using "weasel words" about cooperation and consensus, thus signaling weakness in his commitment to drill ANWR. In 1992, then-Sen. Frank Murkowski predicted ANWR would soon be open to oil rigs. "If we can send a man to the moon, we can open ANWR safely. And that's my job, and that's what we're going to do in the next session in the next Congress," Murkowski, then running for re-election, said in a televised debate. A decade later, after he was elected governor, he proclaimed that -- with Republicans in charge of White House, Congress and Alaska Legislature -- ANWR drilling was imminent. There is "confidence that ANWR will finally be opened," he said in his 2003 State of the State address. "The stars are a bit aligned, ladies and gentlemen, and aligned the right way."

In 2004, Murkowski's daughter Lisa dueled with Knowles in a Senate race that focused heavily on which candidate would be more likely to achieve the state's ANWR goal -- a member of the pro-drilling Republican team, or a Democrat positioned to persuade fellow party members. In 2010, Tea Party Express-endorsed Senate candidate Joe Miller said he could pry open ANWR by giving up some federal funding, trading earmarks for ANWR access.

This year, perennial fringe Senate candidate Ted Gianoutsos has made ANWR the center of his campaign. "The ANWR coastal plain is PLAIN and nothing special," says his website, which features bleak-looking photograph of the area. "ALL ALASKA IS WILD!!!"

For many politicians in oil-dependent Alaska, drilling in the currently protected but potentially oil-rich coastal plain of the Arctic refuge has been almost a holy grail. Not allowing drilling there would be "a crime against Christianity," then-Gov. Wally Hickel declared at a 1991 congressional field hearing in Anchorage.

Despite the years of politicians' promises and declarations, ANWR remains off-limits to oil development. That is to be expected, said University of Alaska Fairbanks political scientist Gerald McBeath.

"It ought to be clear to anyone who looks at the issue analytically that ANWR is on federal land," McBeath said. Any decision to allow drilling on the coastal plain requires action from both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government, he said. "No single person -- either a president or a member of the Senate or a member of the House -- can do it," he said. Begich is no more to blame for lack of oil development in ANWR than is his Republican counterpart in the Senate, Lisa Murkowski, he added.

Still, Alaska candidates are fond of invoking ANWR, often as a "subset of a broader issue," McBeath said. "The overriding and bigger symbolism is the federal government is out to dominate Alaska," he said. Valid or not, the message gets votes, he said. "That's why people say it," he said.

There are signs, at least outside of Alaska, that the drill-ANWR cause is a bit passe.

Past arguments that ANWR oil is needed to stem the decline of U.S. production -- and the increasing reliance on imports -- are now obsolete, thanks in part to the shale revolution in the Lower 48, where operations are far cheaper than in Alaska. The United States is now the world's top oil producer. U.S. oil production and natural gas production are booming, and the ratio of imports to consumption is at a 29-year low, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The pro-drilling campaign has been overtaken by recent events, admits the coordinator of the state-funded lobbying group that promotes ANWR development in Washington.

"It's true that a lot of the firepower has gone out of it," said Adrian Herrera of Arctic Power.

While Arctic Power is "still very much active," the organization is playing defense, opposing efforts to designate the coastal plain as permanently protected wilderness, he said. Political allies are also busy with other causes, he said. "It's not that people are saying we don't need it. It's just that they are conducting the political fights on other issues, like Keystone Pipeline," he said.

Even in Alaska, the ANWR ardor appears to have cooled a little. The state Legislature, which passes pro-drilling resolutions every session, appropriated $250,000 to Arctic Power for the current fiscal year, well below the $1.2 million doled out in 2005 and $750,000 spent the year after.

Litigation, not persuasion or legislation, has been the ANWR strategy of Senate candidate Sullivan and his former boss, Gov. Sean Parnell, who is seeking re-election.

As Alaska's natural resources commissioner, Sullivan in 2013 spearheaded an initiative demanding the right to conduct a state-funded seismic exploration program in the refuge. In March, after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service rejected that proposal, Parnell announced a lawsuit against the federal agency. It was one of a series of lawsuits filed against the federal government by the governor and by Sullivan, who served as Alaska's attorney general from 2009 to 2010.

Sullivan, in a campaign statement issued earlier this year, applauded the lawsuit and said such legal steps are needed to confront the Obama administration and Senate Democrats who oppose ANWR drilling.

"Alaskans have heard enough talk from Senator Begich on the issue of opening ANWR," Sullivan said in the statement. "His continued reluctance to take on the Obama administration and his fellow Democrats in the Senate majority is troubling, but par for the course. Alaskans want action -- and deserve a senator in Washington who will stand up to President Obama's disregard for the rule of law -- that ultimately is prohibiting Alaskans from engaging in responsible resource development."

Arctic Power's Herrera believes the legal strategy, including a new claim for state ownership of 20,000 acres along ANWR's western border, could be successful. "I strongly feel that the state has done their math on this issue and that they will get a positive result," he said.

But Democratic state Rep. Les Gara, a Begich supporter and backer of ANWR development, is not impressed with Sullivan's strategy.

The 240-page seismic exploration plan released last year was "all for show," Gara said. "If he's worth his salt as a lawyer, he knew that's a congressional decision," he said. And the many lawsuits against the Obama administration are part of "a platform to get votes" for Sullivan's Senate campaign, Gara said.

"He should just buy a T-shirt. It's a lot cheaper," he said.