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Shell Oil top contributor in campaign to stop Alaska coastal initiative

Amanda Coyne

As Royal Dutch Shell prepares to explore for offshore oil in Alaska's Arctic, the company is waging an effort against a ballot initiative that supporters say would restore the voice of Alaskans in federal coastal decisions.

Shell has contributed $150,000 to the Vote No on 2 campaign, which opposes reinstating the controversial Coastal Zone Management program, according to the latest campaign finance reports. Vote No on 2 has raised $768,000 in cash and in-kind contributions -- far more than the $64,000 raised by the Alaska Sea Party, the proponents of reviving Coastal Zone Management.

On Monday, candidates and groups were required to file campaign finance reports in advance of the Aug. 28 primary. (Read more: "Alaska Senate races under way as campaign war chests fill up")

Last year, the Alaska Legislature allowed the Coastal Zone Management Program to lapse amid a complex debate of what the program's role should be in local coastal issues. Ballot Initiative 2, which Alaskans will vote on Aug. 28, aims to restore the program, which was enacted in 1972 by the feds.

The state passed its own version in 1977 and had been working basically under that version until 2003, when it was overhauled by then-Gov. Frank Murkowski.

The program gives localities a seat at the table as decisions are made about projects slated for federal land or waters. If the ballot passes, it would, among other things, create the Alaska Coastal Policy Board in the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development (DCCED). The board would include nine locally nominated public members, one from each coastal region, and four state agency commissioners.  

The governor would appoint the public members from a list of nominations from coastal districts, and each could be replaced for “cause” and when his or her term ends.

Among other things, the board would have broad powers to approve regulations, and direct the Department of Commerce to seek federal permits. 

“It creates uncertainty and unpredictability,” for industry said Judy Brady, an unpaid spokesperson for the Vote No on 2. “The board reports to no one,” she said.

The initiative, she said, would change who is in charge of state lands and state resources. And it’s anathema to industry already dependent on a sometimes-fickle state and federal government for the plethora of permits required to approve any given project. For instance, the Pebble Mine project, the proposed massive copper and gold mine in Southwest Alaska that's incited controversy, will end up applying for hundreds of permits and approvals before the project can get underway.

Those in favor of the measure, on the other hand, argue that the program doesn't allow localities to take power over a project from the state or federal government. They contend it's too easy for decision makers, particularly federal bureaucrats thousands of miles from Alaska, to say nothing of state workers hundreds of miles away, to overlook, misunderstand or ignore their concerns.

They argue that permitting under a coastal management plan would be easier than it is now, because now there is no central body to grant permits and make decisions.

Terzah Poe, who supports the initiative and who worked for Shell in Alaska and in Canada until earlier this year, is flummoxed by Shell’s decision to oppose the program. “I know that I had conversations with many people and quite high up who agreed that we needed this coordination,” she said.

In any case, since local authorities in essentially all coastal areas have signed on in support of reinstatement, and many powerful business interests have signed on in opposition, the initiative is shaping up to be a knock-down, drag-out campaign.

Shell’s contribution to Vote No on 2, which opposes the reinstatement, is the single largest of any company so far. At the same time, the move pits Shell against the North Slope Borough, the closest local government to Shell’s offshore oil prospects in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Shell will need state permits for its proposed pipelines crossing state land in northern Alaska. 

The borough, on the other hand, has contributed more than $16,000 to support the ballot initiative reinstating the program.

Shell has had more than 450 meetings with borough citizens and local governments over the years as it tried to gain support for its controversial offshore oil program. On Thursday, Shell's chief executive told analysts the oil company still hopes to drill two exploration wells in Alaska's Arctic this year.

The mining industry has also contributed heavily against the Coastal Zone Management Program. The Alaska Miners Association has given about $155,701 so far, while individual mining companies gave tens of thousands of dollars.

Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho, who sits on the steering committee of the Alaska Sea Party, believes the donations by industry groups is “evidence of the very reason we need coastal management.”

Emergence of so-called ‘Super Pac’

So far in this year's local elections, it appears that only a handful of independent groups, or PACs, have emerged that might take advantage of the controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling that opens the door to massive contributions.

The 2010 Citizens United ruling allows corporations and unions to contribute unlimited resources to groups opposing or supporting political candidates, so long as the groups do not coordinate with the candidate.

The Alaska group that has reported the most money accumulated so far is We Are Alaska, with $100,000, according to state filings.

We Are Alaska is so far fully funded by the Alaska Support Industry Alliance. According to its registration submitted to the Alaska Public Offices Commission, the group “intends to promote responsible development of Alaska's oil, gas and mining resources by providing the public with relevant information regarding initiatives and candidates for state office.”

Rebecca Logan, manager of the Alliance, formed We Are Alaska. The group has reported one estimated expense. It plans to give $20,000 to PS Strategies, an advertising firm jointly owned by Dave Stieren and Mary Ann Pruitt.

Stieren is a conservative talk show host on KFQD-750 AM and Pruitt is executive director of the Associated General Contractors of Alaska, a trade organization for the construction industry. 

Pruitt’s husband, Lance Pruitt, is a state representative living in Anchorage.

Correction: The story originally said that Rebecca Logan was director of Associated General Contractors. She was the president of Associated Builders and Contractors. 

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda@alaskadispatch.com