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Oil industry opened the checkbooks to influence Alaska legislators

The oil industry spent more than $1 million lobbying in Alaska as it tried to lower state oil taxes this year, including a $3,120 dinner in Washington, D.C., when the Alaska Legislature shut down for lawmakers’ “Energy Break” trip to the nation’s capital.

The spending, which ranged from wining and dining Alaska legislators to statewide advertising campaigns, came as the industry and Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell made a heavy but unsuccessful push to convince the Alaska Legislature to slash how much the state taxes the profits made by the oil companies.

“We consider our effort to inform Alaskans about the need for comprehensive oil tax reform as part of our mission as the business trade association for the industry in Alaska, so it is well worth the time and expense,” said Kara Moriarty, executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

AOGA’s legally required disclosures with the Alaska Public Offices Commission include $144,147 in lobbying expenses through the first three months of the year. That is a period covering most of an Alaska legislative session dominated by the bruising debate over whether to lower oil taxes by up to $1 billion a year.

The bulk of AOGA’s disclosed lobbying costs were on advertising and social media. The group also reported a $2,775 legislative luncheon in January at the Baranof Hotel in Juneau and a $3,120 “Energy Council Dinner” in Washington, D.C., during the March visit by a dozen Alaska legislators. The dinner was at the Caucus Room, a high-end steakhouse popular with politicians and owned by former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour, prominent Democrat lobbyist Tom Boggs and an executive from the Carlyle Group, an influential private equity firm.

AOGA’s Moriarty said all Alaska legislators and any spouses or other guests with them in Washington, D.C., were invited. The oil industry trade group is required to disclose the event to the Alaska Public Offices Commission, but not to report a list of attendees.

“I don’t recall the actual legislators that attended the event off the top of my head, but I recall that most legislators (Democrats and Republicans) that were still in Washington, D.C., that night attended,” Moriarty said in an email. “The purpose is for general conversation about Alaska issues. There is no formal program or agenda.”

She said it was the second year the oil industry trade association put on a dinner for the Alaska legislators visiting Washington for the annual Energy Council conference, a gathering that focuses on federal energy issues and is popular both with Alaska lawmakers and industry lobbyists seeking to influence them. Exxon lobbyist Kevin Jardell, BP lobbyist Paul Quesnel and Conoco Phillips lobbyist Michael Hurley all came from Alaska to D.C. during the conference.

A dozen of Alaska’s 60 legislators went at state expense to the Energy Council conference, and the Legislature shut down for the week while they were gone, as it does every year during the conference for what has become known as “Energy Break.”

The Alaska Republicans approved for the Washington, D.C., trip this year were Charisse Millett, Eric Feige, Carl Gatto, Bert Stedman, Lesil McGuire, Tom Wagoner, John Coghill, Charlie Huggins, Fred Dyson and Cathy Giessel. Two Alaska Democrats, Scott Kawasaki and Johnny Ellis, were on the list for the trip. At least two legislative staffers were also in Washington.

Coghill said in an interview this week that he recalls essentially all the Alaskans who were in D.C. for the conference were at the dinner, which he remembers as a cordial discussion of energy issues. But Coghill, who supports lowering Alaska oil taxes, said the broader industry effort to get its message across fell short.

“When you look at the differences of opinion in the Senate, there was a clash. There was a very strong role played by the Senate leadership who said the oil companies were overselling,” Coghill said.

Conoco Phillips spent the most on the effort among the oil companies, reporting $665,004 in lobbying expenses to the Alaska Public Offices Commission for the first three months of the year. Almost $400,000 of that went to the Anchorage advertising firm Bradley Reid and Associates for “media consulting and placement.”

BP reported to the Alaska Public Offices Commission that it spent $190, 646 on lobbying during the first three months of the year, including more than $2,000 for three ”staff/legislator” dinners in Juneau at the Baranof Hotel and at Zephyr, where entrees start at $21.

Much of the pressure on the Alaska Legislature to lower oil taxes came from the Make Alaska Competitive Coalition, an advocacy group supported by Alaska business interests that says it doesn’t take money from the oil producers. The group did not register a lobbyist, so was not required to report expenses to the Alaska Public Offices Commission.

AOGA’s Moriarty said she believes the industry made a difference in public understanding of Alaska’s oil production, which has been going down since 1988. It’s clear the debate over the oil tax isn’t over, and it will be a key issue in the November election and the state’s next legislative session in January.

“Even though the Legislature failed to adopt comprehensive reform, production continues to decline, so we will continue our efforts to advocate for a positive investment climate for all fields on the North Slope,” Moriarty said.

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