Tales of oil industry's influence in Alaska
As federal investigation continues, and political figures are charged, a new oil-tax bill seeks to undo the industry's influence.
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"We didn't blink," says Senate Judiciary Chairman Hollis French, an Anchorage Democrat. "You just don't see the sort of reflex subservience that you saw in the '70s, '80s, and even '90s."Skip to next paragraph
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Meanwhile, stunned oil companies say the new tax bill, estimated to bring in an extra $1.5 billion in annual state revenues, is a money grab.
"You can't tell me that [this is] anything more than a feeding frenzy," Jim Bowles, president of ConocoPhillips Alaska Inc., said at an industry conference last month in Anchorage.
"It feels like the oil and gas industry is the enemy," Doug Suttles, president of BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc., said at the conference.
Aside from the corruption scandal, there are other reasons why the relationship between Alaska and Big Oil has crumbled.
The scandal, plus anger over BP's failure to control corrosion in oil-transit pipelines at Prudhoe Bay, the producers' failure to develop a much-desired natural gas pipeline, and legal challenges to the 1989 Exxon Valdez settlement, have put the Alaska public "in a mood," says state Rep. Mike Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican who helped push for the higher tax.
Industry defenders say the tax hike is part emotional reflex that will do more harm than good.
"I'm afraid that trying to ... reestablish confidence in the public process is a bit of a fool's errand," state Sen. Con Bunde, an Anchorage Republican, said during floor debate on the measure. "It seems like the new national sport is to distrust political figures and government."
ConocoPhillips has already canceled one $300 million project to upgrade a refinery in what it says is a response to the new tax. The company says it may have to truck in ultralow sulfur diesel, mandatory under new federal environmental standards, from a refinery 1,000 road miles away.
Like the extractive industries that preceded it here, the oil industry has exerted tremendous clout in sparsely populated Alaska.
Four of every 5 dollars that the state collects for its general government operations comes from oil royalties, taxes, and fees. Thanks to the wealth generated from the nation's biggest oil fields, Alaska has no individual income tax or statewide sales tax and has built up a $39 billion savings account that pays annual dividends from investment earnings to all residents.
But if Alaskans owe much to oil development, oil companies also owe much to Alaska's publicly owned resources. The Alaska constitution mandates that the state government secure the maximum benefit from commonly owned resources, meaning an explicit fiduciary duty to get the best economic return when oil is extracted from beneath state lands.
"In a very odd sense, the FBI helped us finally fix our oil tax and finally get our fair share," says state Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat who for years has argued that the state's oil-tax structure has shortchanged the public during the recent years of high oil prices.