Gubernatorial candidates spar over gas pipeline, fiscal plans and other issues at Anchorage debate

Gubernatorial candidates at an Anchorage debate on Tuesday use signs to indicate their votes on a ballot measure about a new constitutional convention. Opposing the idea of a convention to rewrite the state’s constitution are, from left, former Gov. Bill Walker, an independent, and former state Rep. Les Gara, a Democrat. In favor of the convention are incumbent Gov. Mike Dunleavy and former Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce, both Republicans. The four appeared at a debate held by the Resource Development Council for Alaska. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy tangled with his challengers Tuesday in an Anchorage debate that featured the first joint appearance of all four gubernatorial candidates on the ballot.

At the debate, held by the Resource Development Council for Alaska, sparks flew over several issues. One was the long-desired but never-built pipeline shipping massive reserves of North Slope natural gas to markets.

Republican Dunleavy accused independent Bill Walker, his predecessor and current challenger, of pursuing a project that was an “illusion” and “nothing real.” And the incumbent governor said, in contrast, his progress has been solid.

“We’ve never been closer to a gasline than we are today,” he said, touting past permitting, federal loan guarantees and ongoing meetings in Asia and Texas.

“This will be the first time and we’re this close to a private-sector-led project, as opposed to a project in which members’ of this organization’s arms have been twisted and some maybe threatened,” he said. “Don’t be surprised if in the very near future — the very near future – there’s an announcement that’s real, not one that’s make-believe.”

Walker accused Dunleavy of abandoning momentum for a liquefied natural gas project that had been building for years.

When he left office in 2018, Walker said, there were 15 memorandums of understanding signed – albeit non-binding – that included giant companies like Exxon Mobil and Tokyo Gas Co. Ltd.

“The largest buyers of LNG in the world all came and signed up and said we want a piece of this project. After I left, those were allowed to expire. I received calls from Mr. Hirose, the president of Tokyo Gas, about a month when I was out of office, that said, `What happened, our calls aren’t returned, what’s going on?’”

Former Rep. Les Gara, the Democratic candidate for governor, scoffed at Dunleavy’s promise of a big announcement.

“You haven’t heard a word about the gas pipeline from this governor for his first three years. Only during this election have you started to hear interest again in a gasline. Come on,” Gara said to the audience.

He said that while he has supported various governors’ gas pipeline plans, the project has to be modernized for an age when carbon emissions and global climate change are top concerns.

“You have to get out of the 1960s mindset. If you’re just going to promote the same old project, it’s not going to happen, just like it hasn’t happened,” Gara said. He urged the use of emerging technology to sequester carbon resulting from natural gas production. “The world is asking for clean energy. They’re not asking for 1960s energy anymore.”

Former Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce, making a rare debate appearance, did harken back to decades past, including the boom oil and gas years in Cook Inlet. Now there’s a possibility of LNG imports into a region that once was an exporter, he said. “I thought that would be a very embarrassing day in the state of Alaska where we have a tanker, an LNG tanker that fills from a port, probably from Canada, produced in Canada, that offloads into Alaska,” he said.

Sparks also over fiscal issues, mostly between Gara and Dunleavy

Gara said the lack of a meaningful fiscal plan has cascading effects through the state, including no dependable capital budget, lackluster funding of education and hardships on the less fortunate, and “people are leaving in droves.” Any recent bump up in the Alaska fiscal situation is due only to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and subsequent oil price increase, which “is not a fiscal plan,” he said. He was particularly critical of Dunleavy’s attempt in 2019 to cut 41% of state funding for the University of Alaska system.

Dunleavy defended his fiscal record. “We are in better shape today fiscally than we were when I came into office. I inherited a $1.6 billion deficit,” he said. Since then, the state’s bond rating has improved and other indicators are up, he said. “We’re in better shape today than we were four years ago, and we’ll be in even better shape four years from now, when I’m your governor.”

Walker said he coped with hard fiscal times. When he got into office in 2014, Alaska North Slope crude was selling for $26 a barrel. He said he helped shepherd in a new approach to drawing from the Alaska Permanent Fund, the state’s oil-wealth fund, that brought a $4.3 billion deficit to about $1 billion and drastically reduced the state’s dependence on fluctuating oil revenues. The new system depends on drawing a fixed percentage of the fund’s total market value each year.

“I come back into office, we’ll finish that job on having a fiscal plan,” he said.

In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Alaska North Slope crude prices jumped above $120 a barrel at points in the spring and summer but more recently have hovered in the low- to mid-90s, according to the state Department of Revenue.

The debate covered other issues, including fisheries management, workforce development, mining, timber and promotion of tourism.

Gara blasted Dunleavy for his support of the Pebble Mine, which the Democrat said damages Alaska’s reputation, among other things.

“It’s wrong to push the Pebble Mine when that’s a danger to the greatest remaining salmon runs in the world. That’s what this governor is doing. He’s giving this state a black eye.” He said.

Gara also blasted Dunleavy’s fishery policies, which he said are allowing over 1,000 tons of halibut and over 500,000 chum salmon to be dumped “dead to the bottom of the ocean.” Dunleavy responded by pointing to the bycatch task force he appointed to study the problem and make recommendations.

The debate featured what might have been Dunleavy’s clearest statement yet on his position on a rewrite of the state’s constitution.

In a lightning-round session, Dunleavy and Pierce both held up “yes” signs conveying their intention to vote for a new constitutional convention. Walker and Gara held up “no” signs to convey their intentions. The question of holding a new constitutional convention goes before Alaska voters every 10 years, and so far voters have rejected the idea.

Tuesday’s event was the first debate event that featured Pierce with all three of the other candidates. Pierce has been elusive, and Dunleavy has committed to attending only five debates, one of which he missed as he engaged with the response to the mid-September storm in western Alaska.

When he spoke, Pierce spend a lot of time reminiscing about past good times in Alaska, including catches of big salmon from Kenai River runs that are dwindling, North Slope oil production that peaked in the late 1980s at 2 million barrels a day, and the large amounts of federal money that the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, who died in 2010, used to secure for Alaska.

In his closing statement, Pierce invoked the late Rep. Don Young and urged conservative votes in not just the gubernatorial race but also in the race for the U.S. House seat now held by Democrat and special election winner Mary Peltola.

“I’m going to take the liberty to tell you that I love the color red,” Pierce said. He asked the audience to consider what Young “would tell you about his replacement” and to vote their consciences. “What I’m going to encourage you to do is rank the red,” he said, a phrase Alaska Republicans have used to urge voters to rank party members in the election.

This story has been updated to correct the day of the debate, which was Tuesday.

Alaska Beacon

Alaska Beacon is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Alaska Beacon maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Andrew Kitchenman for questions: info@alaskabeacon.com. Follow Alaska Beacon on Facebook and Twitter.

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