WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama lost the Alaska vote Tuesday in a landslide and Gov. Sean Parnell has been openly hostile toward him, but now the state’s leaders have no choice than to accept that a majority of the rest of the nation wants Obama as president.
More than 60 percent of Alaska is federal land, and the decisions Obama makes over the next four years are going to shape the development of the state.
In Alaska, where Republicans control the governor’s office and both houses of the Legislature, Parnell recently declared to Congress that Obama “waged a war on American jobs” and has an agenda to stop development of Alaska’s oil and gas resources.
Yet Obama has dismissed the objections of environmentalists and supported Shell Alaska’s efforts to become the first company in two decades to drill for oil in the Arctic waters off Alaska. His economic stimulus program also delivered far more federal dollars per-capita to Alaska than to any other state.
Ethan Berkowitz, the former Democratic minority leader of the state House, argues it’s time for Alaskan leaders to tone down the rhetoric about Obama.
“We need to work with him instead of trying to undermine him. And I think that the tone out of Juneau, particularly from the governor’s office, has been one of overt hostility in an effort to be a Republican team player,” Berkowitz said in an interview. “It’s time to move past that kind of partisanship and move towards what is really good for Alaska.”
Parnell responded that he’ll work with Obama where there’s common ground.
“But where the federal government tries to lock up Alaska with new regulations or adverse interpretations of the law, or where it otherwise smothers Alaskans’ opportunities, we will challenge the federal government in court,” he said.
Obama received just 41 percent of the vote in Alaska. Republican Rep. Don Young, Alaska’s lone member of the U.S. House of Representatives since 1973, was re-elected the same night with 65 percent of the vote.
Young had nothing good to say about Obama after the election, putting out a statement that the president has governed from the far left while in office.
“Alaska, in particular, has felt the brunt of these far-left policies, especially when it comes to developing our God-given resources,” Young said.
Obama has a big decision ahead on offshore Arctic drilling. He allowed Shell to drill in Alaska’s waters this year but not deep enough to hit oil, because the company’s spill containment barge wasn’t ready. Shell hopes now to get permission to drill into oil-bearing zones.
Alaska’s leaders have complained about how long it has taken to allow Arctic offshore drilling. And the Norwegian company Statoil said this summer that it was delaying its offshore Arctic plans because of concerns about the regulatory challenges faced by Shell.
But Shell seems satisfied, at least lately.
“On the permitting front, what we experienced in the last 18 months, as a result of the White House working group, is a model of how offshore permitting could and should work – not streamlined, just accountable and efficient,” said Shell Alaska vice president Pete Slaiby.
The Obama administration’s proposed offshore oil leasing program includes a pair of potential new sales in the Alaska Arctic, starting in 2016.
“We are committed to moving forward with leasing offshore Alaska, and scheduling those sales later in the program allows for further development of scientific information on the oil and gas resource potential in these areas and further study of potential impacts to the environment,” Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes said as the plan was announced.
Environmentalists and some members of Congress from the Lower 48 are lobbying Obama to halt the Arctic leasing. They say the president hasn’t made the case that drilling in the environmentally sensitive region is safe. But Alaskan leaders say the environmental standards for Arctic drilling are the strongest in the world and Obama should not delay the sales for four years or more.
Obama also is clashing with Alaskans over drilling in the vast National Petroleum-Reserve Alaska on the North Slope. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has proposed to prohibit oil development on about half the reserve. He said sensitive wildlife habitat needs to be protected. But Alaska officials say Salazar’s proposal is too restrictive and could close off the route for a pipeline to carry offshore oil in the future.
The Obama administration also is weighing what to do about the proposed Pebble mine, which would be the world’s largest open pit mine. The Environmental Protection Agency said the mine would harm habitat in a region with the richest remaining salmon runs in the world. The EPA did a hotly disputed draft study of the mine at the request of tribal groups and Bristol Bay Native Corp.
Alaskans also are watching what Obama decides on allowing the export of natural gas to foreign countries. His administration delayed a report on the issue until after the election. The report focuses on Lower 48 gas, but Alaska is talking about its own massive export project.
“When that report comes the administration is going to have to look at what its policy is going to be on exports,” said Larry Persily, federal coordinator for Alaska Natural Gas Transportation Projects. “More immediately for the Lower 48, but also overall.”