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Peltola reverts to pro-fish stance with a new anti-Pebble Mine bill and a surprise vote on Alaska drilling

Alaska Congresswoman Mary Peltola in the halls of the Capitol.
Liz Ruskin
Alaska Public Media
Alaska Congresswoman Mary Peltola in the halls of the Capitol.

The U.S. House has passed a bill that would remove obstacles the Biden administration imposed on oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic.

Alaska Congresswoman Mary Peltola was the only Democrat among the bill’s co-sponsors. She voted for the bill in the House Resources Committee. But, in a surprise move, she declined to vote for it Wednesday on the House floor.

“I still support the bill’s intent,” she said before voting “present” on the legislation, called Alaska’s Right to Produce Act.

The bill would reinstate oil leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and nullify a new rule to enhance environmental protections in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Peltola likes those aspects. She said Alaska needs to develop energy projects for its economic well-being, and it will need natural gas as a bridge to renewable sources. But, she said, the bill would also erase a designation called the Northern Bering Sea Climate Resilience Area.

The designation, created during the Obama administration, gives regional tribes a greater voice in what happens in that section of ocean, particularly on marine traffic and federal decisions that affect the ecosystem.

The Biden administration reinstated the Northern Bering Sea designation in a multipurpose executive order. The bill the House passed Wednesday would strike down that order. Peltola said she never intended that part of the order to be reversed.

“By nullifying this Area, we are breaking our promise to tribes and directly harming fishing communities,” she said.

She tried to amend the bill but couldn’t, so she voted “present.” The episode is one of several recent situations that illustrate the difficult line Peltola walks as a red-state Democrat running for re-election, as a supporter of both energy production and a champion of salmon.

Last week, to the dismay of fish advocates on the Kuskokwim River, she added her name to a legal brief defending the development of the Donlin Creek Gold Mine. It was her second reversal on the project. She’d worked for Donlin for years, then renounced her support, and as a candidate, opposed the mine. Her new defense of Donlin has some subsistence advocates saying they feel betrayed.

But further south, in the Bristol Bay region, Peltola had fishermen and mine opponents singing her praises for sponsoring a bill Wednesday to block the proposed Pebble Mine.

“We are incredibly thankful for Rep. Peltola,” said Daniel Cheyette, a senior vice president at Bristol Bay Native Corporation, a staunch Pebble opponent. “She has consistently stood for fish and for Alaska fishing communities.”

The Donlin project is outside Cheyette’s region and he didn’t want to comment on Peltola’s position on that mine.

Peltola’s bill would harden the Environmental Protection Agency’s veto last year of the Pebble project by giving that decision the force of federal law. It’s exactly what anti-Pebble groups have been asking for. But its prospects of passing the House are unclear. Pebble has support among House Republicans.

By defending the Donlin Mine and opposing Pebble, Peltola is in step with Alaska’s Republican U.S. senators. But her neutral position on Alaska’s Right to Produce Act sets her a half step apart. Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski are sponsors of the Senate version.

Sullivan, meanwhile, spent part of his Wednesday staking out a position on a national energy initiative: He announced a new effort to block Biden administration rulesrequiring cleaner emissions from cars and trucks. The EPA says it can be accomplished if 56% of new cars and up to 40% of trucks are electric by 2032. Sullivan calls the rule a “thinly-disguised attempt to get rid of the internal-combustion engine.”

Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media
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