Hawaii & Alaska
Rep. Mary Peltola (D-Alaska) at a House Natural Resources Committee meeting. Francis Chung/POLITICO

AK - Mary Peltola’s delicate balance on energy, climate

Mary Peltola, one of the few pro-oil Democrats in Congress, spent months prodding President Joe Biden to approve the enormous Willow project on the North Slope of Alaska. She was the only Democrat this year to join the pro-fossil fuel Congressional Western Caucus. And when Biden reversed oil and gas leases in her state last week, she said she was “deeply frustrated.”

The Alaskan has certainly frustrated some members of her own party and environmentalists — in her 2022 campaign, the national chapter of the League of Conservation Voters declined to endorse her.

And yet her voting record from LCV reveals she has mostly joined with Democrats on environmental bills with the exception of a handful of times. Republicans plan to use such votes against her in a seat they are targeting to retake in 2024.

Up for a second full term, Peltola finds herself in a tough spot. She represents a state that has long depended on the oil and gas industry for jobs and direct checks to residents.

At the same time, the brutal effects of climate change are on full display: The Arctic is melting; permafrost is thawing; coastal villages are moving inland.

In her view, people in cities in the “lower 48” have the luxury of not thinking about where their energy comes from — even as they have an insatiable appetite for power.

“It was frustrating to hear [the Willow] project referred to as a carbon bomb,” she said in a recent interview, referring to comments made by some green groups.

“When, actually, the carbon bomb has been on the demand side,” said Peltola. “The folks who were saying that about this project came from districts where every single day the mere existence of their district is a carbon bomb.”

She complained that Americans are oblivious to the amount of carbon they consume powering their iPhone or microwaving their coffee.

“I just would love to see Americans have an honest conversation about how to reduce our carbon emissions — all of us — including people who come from big districts.”

Along with the state’s two Republican senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, Peltola spent months pushing senior administration officials and President Joe Biden to greenlight Willow, a contentious operation that at its peak will produce 180,000 barrels of oil a day over 68,000 acres in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Observers thought her Democratic credentials might have given the Biden administration cover to approve a fossil fuel project that generated enormous backlash among many in the party — not to mention young climate advocates.

“It’s a complex issue,” said former Alaska Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat who first met Peltola when she was a representative in the Alaska House from 1999 to 2009.

He thought her campaign’s focus on families explained her support for the industry. “I think it’s not in contrast to her philosophy in terms of climate change,” said Knowles.

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