WASHINGTON — In his first trip out of state since he replaced Sarah Palin as Alaska's governor, Sean Parnell urged the Obama administration to consider the state's perspective as it weighs whether to allow oil exploration to go forward in Arctic waters.
Parnell came to Washington in part to cheerlead on behalf of a proposed natural gas pipeline, but focused his attention on Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, whose department is deciding how to proceed on a five-year plan for oil and gas development on the outer continental shelf, including in Arctic waters.
"We have existing environmental regulations in place, we have a rich reserve and deposit of oil and gas that can be accessed, and we have a nation that needs it," Parnell said. "That's about as simple as I think I can get."
The Bush-era five-year plan for oil and gas exploration off the U.S. coast is under review by the Obama administration, which took office this year. Salazar has held public hearings, including a well-attended April meeting in Anchorage where both Parnell and Palin spoke in favor of offshore development. The comment period ends Monday, and Salazar told reporters Thursday that the agency is still considering whether to let the plan continue through 2012 or write a new one.
Parnell said he asked Salazar to "move as expeditiously as possible on a decision" after Monday so that oil companies with leases in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas can start exploring next summer with "real people and real jobs."
Parnell this week also met with two senior people in the Obama administration: Pete Rouse, who has ties to Alaska and is one of the president's top advisers; and Heather Zichal, deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate change.
They listened intently, Parnell said, but no one at the White House or the Interior Department indicated which direction the administration leans on the outer continental shelf issue.
Parnell downplayed questions about whether he is fighting an uphill battle against a presidential administration whose environmental and energy policy may be not be as pro-development as Alaska's. Everyone received him "warmly and graciously and listened" to what he had to say, Parnell said.
"Where we will disagree, we're going to disagree, and it will be plainly stated. But it's going to be done in a way that's respectful and dignified in the process," he said.
Other than the Thursday afternoon press conference attended mostly by business reporters who cover oil and gas issues, Parnell shunned the limelight during his short visit to Washington. He said his trip was all state business, and that he had no political meetings, such as with the Republican Governor's Association or other organizations that might have a hand in a 2010 bid for governor. Parnell arrived around noon Wednesday and was scheduled to depart Thursday afternoon.
Parnell said that during his one-hour meeting with the state's congressional delegation, he reported to them on his meeting with Salazar — Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Democrat Sen. Mark Begich and Republican Rep. Don Young were supportive of his approach on energy issues, and agreed with him on developing the outer continental shelf. Since becoming governor almost eight weeks ago, he has met and spoken with all three, including Young, who defeated Parnell's bid for Congress during the Republican primary last year.
Parnell also asked the delegation to use its influence to urge the companies pursuing rival natural gas pipelines to join forces.
The state last year awarded TransCanada Corp., a Canadian pipeline company, a license to develop a multibillion-dollar gas pipeline from the North Slope, and Exxon Mobil — the single biggest holder of gas reserves there — signed on to the project this year. The two companies are competing with the Denali pipeline project, backed by the other two big gas leaseholders on the Slope: BP and ConocoPhillips.
"These parties need to move together into a greater commercial alignment, and that's the message I came carrying," Parnell said, referring to his decision not to negotiate with oil companies over the state natural gas tax until there's one united pipeline project. "There are so many permutations that a commercial project can take and for me to dictate one way, I'm not going to do it. That takes away the creativity and the complexity of a commercial deal."