A time to fight, a time to build bridges

By Bill Walker
Anchorage Daily News, February 12, 2021

Far too many frivolous lawsuits are being filed by the Dunleavy administration, many of which do nothing. I applaud certain efforts to push back when the 10th Amendment — state’s rights — is being violated by the federal government. I also agree that litigation is sometimes necessary, but I believe the barrage of lawsuits Alaska is filing or joining under the current administration is unwarranted. Leadership focused on doing what’s best for Alaska and not a national audience more often requires dialogue, negotiation, compromise and diplomacy, especially given that Alaska is unlike any other state. Frivolous lawsuits make headlines, not headway.

When Alaska joined the Union, we were given certain ownership rights in the statehood compact because we were expected to live off our resources and were told not to expect the same level of infrastructure seen in the Lower 48. Well, the feds certainly honored that promise. There was a “catch,” however. Alaska can only earn revenue from our resources when they’re developed. If we sold the resources in the ground without them being developed, those state lands would revert to the feds. Therefore, ensuring control over resource development is just as critical to Alaska’s future as defending the personal liberties of all Alaskans.

There has always been tension between Alaska and the federal government. President Joe Biden isn’t the first president to take a run at us. President Dwight D. Eisenhower created what became the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR; and President Jimmy Carter expanded the area. President Bill Clinton vetoed legislation to open ANWR.

As my father often said in Valdez, “We survived the earthquake (1964), but we damn near didn’t survive the federal government’s ideas of help!”

While we must always stand up to the federal government to ensure our rights; it’s also important to do so such that we don’t completely alienate them either. They will continue to be an important partner in our future and a huge contributor to our economy. That’s why strictly partisan confrontation alone has never been effective. Administrations and party control are always in flux.

As governor, I flew on Air Force One from D.C. to Alaska with President Barack Obama. My goal was to explain to him how responsibly we develop our resources and their importance to our economy. After several conversations inflight and while riding to the Hotel Captain Cook from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in the “Beast” with President Obama, he committed to supporting drilling offshore in Alaska, since we will still need carbon-based energy as a bridge to renewable resources; better to use our own resources than from places with significantly lower environmental standards. This outcome wouldn’t have been possible without frank conversations — a far better way to develop policy than with dueling press releases.

My relationship with President Obama’s Secretary of Interior, Sally Jewell, was particularly strained. At a National Governors’ Conference roundtable with Secretary Jewell, governors were explaining what critters were threatened with extinction in their state. When it was my turn, I said it was our economy that was becoming extinct due to some of her policies. Some governors gasped, but it was true! But I persisted. She and I had five separate meetings that day, and I was confident she understood Alaska better by day’s end.

During the permitting process for the ConocoPhillips Willow project on the North Slope, then-Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack and I had numerous calls and meetings with Secretary Jewell explaining the benefits of the project to Alaska. That project was allowed to move forward under her watch.

On her last day in office, Secretary Jewell called me to explain the environmental actions she and President Obama were being pressured to take regarding Alaska in their final days in office, but they chose not to do so. That happened because we worked to forge relationships that were in Alaska’s best interest.

I subsequently met with President Donald Trump on many occasions. He invited me to the White House along with three other governors during Energy Week and asked what he could do to help advance the Alaska Gasline Project. I explained it was critical to have the Asian LNG markets aware of this opportunity in Alaska. Shortly after that conversation, China’s president, along with his entire cabinet, stopped in Alaska to meet with me after staying with President Trump at Mar-a-Lago, where the president had talked with him about Alaska’s great LNG potential. After a highly competitive process, President Trump’s administration invited our Alaska contingent to Beijing, where he witnessed the signing of Alaska’s LNG project development agreement. Ours was one of just a handful of large American infrastructure projects his administration selected to help offset the balance of trade.

Alaska has an unprecedented opportunity. In addition to the approximately $5 billion in the bipartisan infrastructure bill that Sen. Lisa Murkowski spearheaded with support from Sen. Dan Sullivan and Congressman Don Young, there is an additional $120 billion available, for which all 50 states will compete. I see other Republican governors preparing to compete for those funds, but Gov. Dunleavy, stunningly, did not even mention it in his recent State of the State speech. If aggressively pursued, the amount of funds for infrastructure development could be transformational for Alaska. Unfortunately, politics prevent Gov. Dunleavy from openly welcoming this massive infrastructure opportunity or for giving any credit whatsoever to Sen. Murkowski, who is largely responsible for making this happen. If Dunleavy can’t even talk about it out of political fear, how can we trust him to fight for it when we finally have something truly worth fighting for?

Unlike Gov. Dunleavy, I believe we need more than just executive orders and expensive, headline-grabbing lawsuits. I often think of Sen. Ted Stevens’ memorial service where the two main speakers were his dear friends — both Democrats — then-Vice President Biden and Hawaii’s Sen. Daniel Inouye. Sen. Stevens knew when to fight and when to build bridges, always focused on what was best for Alaska. We’re doing a lot of fighting right now, but if we want to secure billions of sorely needed infrastructure funds for our state, it’s time, both literally and figuratively, to start building bridges.