Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola took over Alaska’s at-large congressional seat with promises of bipartisanship. But the needle-threading required to find consensus on major oil projects in the state could test her agility.
Peltola is the first Alaska Native to join Congress, and brings a history of advocating for the state’s Native communities and sustainability in fishing and resource management. She has seen how climate change is already impacting her constituents, she said in a recent House Natural Resources Committee hearing. Still, when it comes to oil and gas, she would rather it be drilled in the U.S.
She represents a state that in recent decades has benefited economically from the oil and gas industry — it accounts for about one-quarter of jobs in Alaska, according to the Alaska Resource Development Council. Revenue from the industry has funded up to 90 percent of the state’s unrestricted General Fund in most years.
“Alaska is a resource development state, that’s no secret,” said Kara Moriarty, president of the trade group Alaska Oil and Gas Association. “If you look back at the state’s history, oil and gas has been a part of the state’s fabric since the very beginning.”
Still, 60 percent of Alaskan land is under federal protection via national forests, parks and wildlife refuges. Renowned for its pristine environment and waterways, Alaska is home to one of the world’s last greatest strongholds of wild Pacific salmon. Fishing and tourism follow oil and gas as the state’s largest industries.
Competing drives for resource extraction and wildland preservation mirrors energy and environment discussions in Congress — Democrats argue the U.S. needs to slow down on oil and gas development to make way for clean energy technologies, while Republicans counter that new oil and gas development is needed to keep gas prices stable and maintain energy security.
But Peltola said approving new oil and gas projects doesn’t need to be partisan. In fact, it can’t be partisan if the U.S. wants to advance the clean energy transition, she added.
“They’re going to have to coexist — we have to find ways to find revenues to cover the costs of our basic government services, and we also need to make sure that we’re leaving a good environment for the future generations,” Peltola said. “And of course I’m supportive of a transition to renewables. It’s just a matter of being realistic about the time frame.”
The philosophy explains why Peltola supports the Willow Project, a proposed ConocoPhillips oil and gas development in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska that’s estimated to be capable of producing 590 million barrels of oil over 30 years.
Environmental advocates argue the project would emit 287 million metric tons of carbon pollution, equivalent to emissions produced by 76 coal plants running for a year, which they say would threaten the Biden administration’s goal of achieving a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. And the infrastructure necessary for the project would make it easier to build other developments nearby, like proposed drill sites Cassin, West Willow, Harpoon, Merlin 1 and Merlin 2 — which would lead to even more emissions.
“The project and its myriad infrastructure will also threaten the health and safety of Alaska Natives and other local communities,” House Natural Resources ranking member Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., said of the project recently. “Nuiqsut, an Inupiat village that is near that oil field and the Willow project, has expressed serious concerns about the project’s impacts on their way of life and subsistence food sources, including caribou, fish and birds.”
Best of both worlds
In a September letter to the Biden administration with the two other members of the Alaska delegation, Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, Peltola called for “expeditious approval” of the Willow Project, adding it would “greatly benefit Alaska, our nation and the world.”
“Willow specifically is really important to me because the labor groups and union members specifically asked me to support this,” Peltola said in an interview. “We really need these good paying jobs that are going to help keep families in Alaska … we’ve been in an economic slump for 15 years, and without development, a lot of union workers would have to leave.”
The project is a prime example of how responsibly the U.S. does oil and gas development, she added. “It just makes sense that the people on Earth who do it with the highest labor standards, the highest environmental standards, would be involved in the production of that.”
Those practices are due at least in part to the environmental review process for projects under the National Environmental Policy Act — a procedure that requires the federal government to perform environmental assessments, hold community meetings and take public comments before it approves a project.
The Willow Project is now on alternative E, meaning it’s been through five iterations, Peltola said. The NEPA process brought the surrounding community, tribes, industry and federal government together to work out a development plan that she believes makes economic sense.
“Many Alaskan Native community leaders have been championing this project from the beginning … and it does have broad-based support,” Peltola said. “We are a spectrum — we’re not pro-development, we’re not anti-development. We really look at projects individually and really grapple with whether this project makes sense for our region.”
But Peltola’s bipartisan spirit is likely to face hurdles when it comes to the NEPA process. Many Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., have been itching to make changes to the environmental review process aimed at streamlining it. Democrats, however, argue that the GOP’s revisions would simply cut assessments in the name of fast-tracking oil and gas projects.
But she says she’s ready to find bipartisanship there, too.
She shares Republicans’ frustrations over how long the process takes. And “fast-tracking” the project doesn’t necessarily mean the project will be active sooner, she added, since many decisions fall into litigation.
“It’s almost part of the NEPA process that there’s an assumption that whatever the decision is, it will be litigated,” Peltola said.
She added she sees opportunities to address the slow environmental review process by fixing agencies’ high turnover rate so that a single team can see a project from beginning to end.
“The Army Corps of Engineers in some projects over 10 years will have at least 10 different individuals that are explaining the project to [the communities] and then getting to know the communities that are involved in stakeholder engagement,” she explained. “It’s very complicated.”
Despite backing the project, she hasn’t lost support from many environmentalists. Dyani Chapman, state director of the nonprofit Alaska Environment Action, said that although many in the group were “disappointed” that Peltola supported Willow, she can “sympathize with the challenging dynamics that are at stake here.”
And Peltola’s climate change rhetoric doesn’t shake Moriarty either — Peltola had a reputation when she was in the Alaska House in the 2000s for being “extremely thoughtful, extremely diligent and somebody that was open to a variety of perspectives,” Moriarty added.
“We fully expect … that she will continue to evaluate [projects] on the merits of our industry and the importance of our industry as well as the merits of the project,” she said. “She was that way in the statehouse and we don’t expect anything less in the U.S. Congress.”