Peltola returns to pro-fish stance with a new anti-pebble mine law and a surprise vote on drilling in Alaska

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

The US House of Representatives has passed a bill that would remove obstacles to oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic imposed by the Biden administration.

Congresswoman Mary Peltola of Alaska was the only Democrat among the bill's co-sponsors. She voted for the bill in the House Resources Committee. Surprisingly, however, she refused to vote for it in the House of Representatives on Wednesday.

“I still support the intent of the bill,” she said before taking a “present” vote on the legislation, called the Alaska's Right to Produce Act.

The bill would reinstate oil leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and repeal a new regulation designed to improve environmental protection in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

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

The designation, created during the Obama administration, gives regional tribes a greater voice in events in this section of the ocean, particularly maritime traffic and federal decisions that impact the ecosystem.

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

“By removing this designation, we are breaking our promise to the 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 path Peltola is taking 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 Kuskokwim River fish advocates, she added her name to a legal brief defending the Donlin Creek Gold Mine development. It was their second reversal of the project. She had worked for Donlin for years, then withdrew her support and ran as a candidate against the mine. In their new defense of Donlin, some subsistence advocates say they feel betrayed.

But further south, in the Bristol Bay region, fishermen and Peltola mining opponents praised her for supporting a bill Wednesday to block the proposed Pebble Mine.

“We are incredibly grateful to Rep. Peltola,” said Daniel Cheyette, senior vice president of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, a staunch Pebble opponent. “She has always been an advocate for Alaska’s fish and fishing communities.”

(The Donlin project is outside the Cheyette region and he would not comment on Peltola's position on that mine.)

Peltola's bill would toughen the Environmental Protection Agency's veto last year of the Pebble project by giving that decision the force of federal law. This is exactly what anti-Pebble groups have been calling for. But its prospects of passing the House are unclear. Pebble has support among Republicans in the House of Representatives.

By defending the Donlin mine and opposing Pebble, Peltola is aligned with Alaska's Republican U.S. senators. But their neutral stance on Alaska's Right to Produce Act separates them by half a point. Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski are sponsors of the Senate version.

Sullivan, meanwhile, spent part of his Wednesday taking a stance on a national energy initiative: He announced a new attempt to block the Biden administration's rules mandating cleaner emissions from cars and trucks. The EPA says this can be achieved if 56% of new cars and up to 40% of trucks are electric by 2032. Sullivan calls the rule a “thinly veiled attempt to eliminate the internal combustion engine.”

Anna Harden

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