My Turn: Alaskans can't fully trust Big Oil

Ballot Measure 1 is a divisive and complex issue. Much confusion has been generated and I’ve been asked by many friends, “How am I supposed to vote?”

It’s really not for me to tell you how to vote, but I’m glad to tell you how I’m going to vote.

I’m going to vote “yes” to repeal Senate Bill 21, and I hope you will consider doing the same, though many of my colleagues and people I greatly respect don’t agree. I think this vote is going to be a squeaker either way. That’s why it is so important you exercise your civic right to vote, however you decide. SB 21 gives away too much of your money to big oil.

Former Sen. Clem Tillion likes to remind Alaskans that our natural resources are our patrimony. He is right. The Alaska Constitution guarantees the state’s natural resources will be used for the maximum benefit of its people. That’s you. When Alaska became a state, one of the first claims made was for Prudhoe Bay. Alaskans were certainly no dummies. We knew where the oil was and how valuable it was, so Prudhoe Bay and its oil resources became ours.

We are foolish to give away (for so little) the resources we own. There is an old American saying, “Don’t give away the farm.” That’s what I think you will be doing if you vote “no.” I have nothing against Big Oil. We need them, but we can never really trust them to look out for our best interests. They are, and should be, looking out for their stockholders and their bottom line, but what’s best for Big Oil may not be what’s best for Alaska.

We are being told that the choice is black and white, between continuing the old oil tax system called ACES, which has some faults, or the new tax system under SB 21, which is way too generous to Big Oil. As in most matters, the best course is somewhere between those extremes. If the public votes “yes,” as I hope they will, the issue of a fair tax will go back to the Legislature to find a compromise between the two. Over the last few years, the Legislature has considered being more generous to Big Oil on the issue of progressivity when oil prices are high, and trying to find ways to benefit all oil companies when they put newly-discovered oil in the pipeline.

Remember: Prudhoe Bay is an aging oil field and we expected production would continue to decline as it has in the past. It is one of the greatest oil fields ever in this country, but we have been pumping oil out of it for decades. No one should be surprised that other states are now out-producing us. As Sen. Bert Stedman has pointed out, the boom in North Dakota and Texas is not tax driven but is a result of new fracking technology on privately owned land, not state land as here in Alaska. In fact, Alaskans would be better off under North Dakota’s tax and royalty structure than we are under Gov. Sean Parnell’s SB 21 to the tune of some $1.5 billion, according to Stedman. It’s unfortunate we are no longer the No. 1 oil producer, but that should not cause us to drastically reduce taxes in such an extreme way. We are only shooting ourselves in our collective feet.

I have not always agreed with former Gov. Sarah Palin, but she was right to introduce ACES because we Alaskans had for years not benefited as much as we should have as our oil was shipped through TAPS. Unfortunately, in many cases we were virtually giving our oil away. Palin recognized that Alaskans were being taken advantage of and through ACES brought Alaskans a fairer share of our resource. If we need to make minor changes, let’s do it, but if we are foolish enough to vote “no,” we are pretty much giving our oil away once again. It will not be replenished like our renewable resources. Once our oil is gone, it is gone forever. Alaskans will likely not benefit from other oil finds as we have with Prudhoe Bay.

The federal government oversees and taxes ANWR and the Outer Continental Shelf, not Alaskans. Maybe less oil will flow though TAPS, but it is even more valuable to Alaskans than ever. At the rate we are producing oil, it should last 50 to 100 years. Let’s use our resources wisely so that it benefits all Alaskans now and well into the future as our Constitution decrees.

Should Alaskans decide to keep the governor’s tax giveaway in place, I truly fear for the future. How are we going to pay for the services we want like public education, police protection, senior services, health and social services? The choices are limited. First, we will power though our limited savings. Then we will be faced with the Sophie’s Choice of using our Permanent Fund or reinstating an income tax.

It’s up to you, Alaska’s voters (as it has always been), to see through the millions of dollars of TV ads that always end with the quickly read statement: “Paid for by Exxon, BP and ConocoPhillips.” The other side can’t afford those ads. How can Big Oil afford them? Could it be that they will reap enormous profits should you allow it? If you believe as I do that Alaskans are not receiving a fair price for their oil, then I encourage you to go to the polls on Aug. 19 and vote “yes” to repeal SB 21.

• Sen. Gary Stevens represents District R in the Alaska State Senate. He served two terms as Senate President and was the 2013 National Chairman of the Council of State Governments.

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