With leases suspended, Alaska agency wants $6 million more for Arctic Refuge drilling campaign

Alaska's economic development agency says it needs the money for next year's permitting, legal support and lease payments — though the Biden administration says the payments aren't due.

With leases suspended, Alaska agency wants $6 million more for Arctic Refuge drilling campaign
The Ribdon River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

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Alaska’s economic development agency has released plans to spend $6 million next year to advance its campaign to search for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, even as new environmental reviews, pending lawsuits and investor skepticism cast doubt on whether wells will ever be drilled.

The budget also includes money for annual lease payments, even though the Biden administration has suspended the agency’s leases and refunded its payments for the current year.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state-owned corporation whose board is appointed by the governor, won seven leases in the refuge in a sale held early last year, in the final days of the Trump administration. Two private companies also won acreage.

Then, President Joe Biden, on his first day in office, blocked the federal government from carrying out any more steps in its refuge leasing and development program, and his interior secretary, Deb Haaland, subsequently ordered an additional environmental review. The draft of that review has been delayed several months and will be released in the middle of next year, the administration said in November.

There are also multiple pending federal lawsuits challenging the leasing program’s legality, and many insurers and banks have announced that they won’t finance or support drilling in the Arctic Refuge. Facing those obstacles, the two private companies relinquished their leases earlier this year, leaving AIDEA as the only remaining leaseholder.

AIDEA, which filed its own lawsuit challenging the Biden administration’s lease suspensions, says it’s already spent $13.8 million out of $20 million that its board previously set aside for oil-related work in the refuge.

AIDEA could spend the rest of the money next year, if its board approves the agency’s proposal at a meeting next week.

Of the $6 million budget, $3.7 million would go toward annual lease payments. Another $1.5 million would fund a new contract for permitting work, in support of cultural and archaeological surveys and plans to gather seismic data. The remaining $1.1 million would pay for “legal and professional support,” according to the proposed budget drafted by AIDEA’s staff.

AIDEA’s budget proposal

The Biden administration, in correspondence with AIDEA, has said the agency didn’t have to make any lease payments for 2022 because of the suspension that began last year. And the federal government has already refunded the $3.65 million that AIDEA paid for this year, said Josie Wilson, a spokeswoman for the agency.

But AIDEA maintains that the lease suspension is legally invalid, and it’s still planning to make another $3.65 million lease payment for 2023 as a precaution, Wilson added.

“We don't want them to come back and say, ‘Oh, you didn't make payments,” she said.

Opponents of drilling in the refuge said they’re frustrated to see AIDEA asking to spend more money given the obstacles to development.

"We will make our voices heard against continuing to spend the state's money on something that is likely to never happen,” said Emily Sullivan, communications director for Northern Alaska Environmental Center, a conservation group. “Everyone else has gotten the picture from the administrative actions that have taken place, and AIDEA just continues to double down.”

Alaska attorney general headlines $15,000-a-head fundraiser for conservative group

A screenshot from Alaska Policy Partners’ website.

Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor is headlining a $15,000-per-person fundraiser for a conservative organization that ran attack ads against liberal state legislators this year — though an official from the group said the cash will fund its “nonpolitical” advocacy arm rather than political campaigns.

Taylor is hosting a “wild Alaskan fishing expedition” to benefit Alaska Policy Partners next summer at a remote lodge outside Juneau, according to an advertisement on the group’s website. The five-day trip costs $15,000 for a double occupancy room and $25,000 for a single, the page says.

Taylor’s association with Alaska Policy Partners drew attention earlier this year, as the group paid for mailers targeting Democratic and moderate Republican candidates. Taylor was listed as a director on nonprofit corporate records that the group filed with the state Division of Corporations in March, and his wife was listed as a director on filings the group made with state campaign finance regulators in October.

Updated filings have removed both Taylors’ affiliations. Remaining leaders include a number of conservative political and business figures, including Mat-Su Borough Assemblyman Rob Yundt, oil field services executive James Udelhoven and Wade Erickson, founder of Capstone Family Medicine.

In a brief phone interview Tuesday, Seth Church, a longtime conservative activist who’s now Alaska Policy Partners’ president, said the group’s original filings contained a number of errors that were corrected. The organization has three separate entities, he added: a political action committee, a super PAC-like group and an advocacy arm.

Treg Taylor is working solely on the advocacy arm, Church said.

The group has published few specifics on its agenda. But it says on its Facebook page that it’s organizing businesses and individuals “to promote free market policies in social and civic venues and to support other institutions or programs serving the people of Alaska.”

During the election, its political efforts supported an array of conservative Republican candidates.

Treg Taylor, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy did not respond to a request for comment. He acts as the governor’s chief legal advisor and oversees the Department of Law, which prosecutes criminal law and enforces consumer protections and laws against unfair trade practice.

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