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Offshore oil fuels Young and Murkowski campaigns

Jill Burke

nanuq-shell
Courtesy Royal Dutch Shell
Edison Chouest Offshore built and operates Shell’s existing ice-class anchor handler, The Nanuq, which Shell considers the centerpiece of its oil-spill response fleet

Alaska's Congressman Don Young and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, both running for re-election this fall, have collectively raised more than $125,650 over the past year from a Louisiana company that stands to gain big from offshore oil exploration in the Arctic.

Employees and family members of Edison Chouest Offshore, a ship- and port-building company involved in offshore oil and gas operations, gave more than $61,000 to Young's campaign since January -- representing 44 percent of all contributions the Republican has collected this year, according to filings with the Federal Elections Commission.

Edison Chouest is active in the Gulf of Mexico and is now becoming a player in Alaska through Royal Dutch Shell, which has purchased a vessel, The Nanuq, and ordered a second from the company in support of its arctic oil and gas exploration program. When the icebreaker contract was announced in July 2009, Chouest spokesman Lonnie Thibodeaux told the Louisiana news site HoumaToday.com the project "could be small in comparison to what could come down the line."

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently signed off on offshore oil exploration on existing leases in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off Alaska's northern coast, but cancelled future lease sales in those areas until more environmental studies are done. Shell is planning offshore exploratory drilling this summer on its current leases.

Young and Murkowski have been staunch supporters of offshore oil, which may explain the support their campaigns have gotten from Edison Chouest.

Since March 2009, contributions from Edison Chouest employees and families have totaled at least $72,000 for Young, though more than $18,000, identified as "excessive" by the congressman's campaign, has since been returned to donors, according to Young's recent FEC filings. Since early last year, Young's campaign has raised a total of $540,000. He's facing Sheldon Fisher, a former executive at Alaska Communications Systems, in this year's Republican primary.

Murkowski, Alaska's senior senator and a Republican, has pulled in $53,000 from employees and family members of Edison Chouest, with most of the contributions coming around last September. She's raised a total of $2.5 million in campaign contributions and is facing virtually no opposition in her re-election bid.

For energy companies and contractors, Murkowski and Young hold powerfully relevant committee positions. Young's the second most senior Republican in the House and holds his party's rank on the House Transportation and Infrastructure and Natural Resources committees. Murkowski is the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Murkowski and Young's campaigns together have received $40,000 in contributions from employees and political action committees of Alaska's three major oil producers (Exxon Mobil Corp., ConocoPhillips and BP), of which $21,000 came from Exxon-affiliated donors. People or groups affiliated directly with Shell did not contribute to either campaign. (Note: None of the companies gave directly to either campaign. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated otherwise.)

'Value proposition'

Edison Chouest has become a major player in Shell's offshore exploration plans, with the company building state-of-the-art vessels equipped with the best technology available, said Curtis Smith, a Shell spokesman. The company built and operates Shell's existing ice-class anchor handler, The Nanuq, which Shell considers the centerpiece of its oil-spill response fleet, he said.

Shell is paying Edison Chouest $150 million for another arctic-class, ice-breaking supply ship, which will be the largest and most sophisticated vessel the company has ever built, according to Houmatoday.com. It's expected to take 1,000 employees two years and more than two million man-hours to build.

Shell's contract with Edison Chouest is not only an economic boom for the shipbuilder's home state of Louisiana but also for Alaska, where residents are helping operate Shell's ships, Smith said.

"The Nanuq was fully crewed by Alaskans and other Alaskans, including residents from Kaktovik and the North Slope, have been recruited to work/train on the (Edison Chouest fleet) around the world," Smith said in an e-mail. "It's our view this is a good example of the value proposition offshore exploration brings to the state -- especially coastal communities."

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.