Alaska governor candidates spar at forum

Posted: Tuesday, October 19, 2010

ANCHORAGE - Alaska gubernatorial candidates answered questions for Anchorage high school students Monday that ranged from Arctic Ocean offshore drilling to their favorite Disney character.

Students gathered at West High for the League of Women Voters Youth Vote gubernatorial debate also heard the candidates' views on gay marriage, the proposed Pebble Mine and a proposed natural gas pipeline.

Libertarian Billy Toien argued consistently for reducing government intervention in most circumstances.

The differences were sharper between Democrat Ethan Berkowitz, a former Anchorage state representative, and Republican Sean Parnell, the former lieutenant governor elevated to the governor's job when Sarah Palin quit.

Answering a question on legalizing civil unions, Parnell said he supports defining marriage as a union between a woman and a man. Berkowitz said there have been too many heart-rending stories of partners unable to be in the room when one is dying because they could not legally marry.

"If two people love each other and are willing to make a commitment to each other, the state should not get in the way," he said.

Both major candidates claim to support the best options for constructing an Alaska megaproject, a natural gas pipeline carrying North Slope natural gas to markets in Canada or the Lower 48.

Berkowitz backs an "all-Alaska" pipeline to Valdez and he repeated his pledge to tap Bill Walker, who was defeated by Parnell in the GOP primary, to head up a team advancing the project.

Parnell said he sticking to the process begun by Palin through the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, which has resulted for the first time in Alaska history of companies making commitments for space in proposed pipelines. Picking only a line to Valdez would be limiting options, he said.

Berkowitz said he backs an amendment to the Alaska Constitution that would protect subsistence hunting rights that respect Native cultures.

Parnell said a subsistence amendment was debated but not passed in the 1990s and Alaska now has a dual federal-state management system. He said he respects subsistence use but the state needs to figure out how to reclaim Alaska management of its resources.

As for offshore drilling in Arctic waters, Parnell was an enthusiastic yes, noting the state's lawsuit seeking to lift what he calls a drilling moratorium put in place by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar after the Gulf of Mexico blowout. Shallow-water drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas can be done safely, he said.

Berkowitz, who spent three seasons working in the Antarctic, said he was skeptical that any substantial cleanup of a spill could occur in ice-filled waters. State government should concentrate on what it can control: putting in place communications infrastructure, harbors, spill response, and coastal zone management plans that give local communities a meaningful say in development plans, he said.

Likewise, Berkowitz said he's not ready to back the Pebble Mine project proposed for southwest Alaska because of the risk to salmon fisheries. He called the permitting process "broken" and said coastal zone management, giving communities a voice in development projects, had been gutted by former Gov. Frank Murkowski.

"There are mines in the state that make sense to me," Berkowitz said. "Pebble, at this point, is not one of them."

Parnell defended a clear and consistent permitting process as a means of everyone "knowing the rules of the road."

"If you have a governor up front who says, 'I oppose a project and I'm going to stop that project,' then it becomes the buddy-buddy system, about who gets permits and who gets to create the mines and who gets the land," Parnell said.

The permitting process is a sound way to sift through science and public comments that will kill bad projects and let good ones go through, he said.

For the record, Berkowitz likes Mickey Mouse, Toien is a fan of Goofy and Parnell prefers Mighty Mouse.

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