Who’s Paying for PNWER?

By Beacon Staff

Representatives of several northwestern states including Montana, Canadian provinces, and large corporations converged on Anchorage, Alaska last week to attend the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region’s annual summit.

But the event’s corporate sponsors, some of which seek to develop mining projects in the Canadian Flathead, have spurned protests by a state elected official and public advocacy group.

The summit, a five-day meeting of some of the region’s most powerful business and political leaders, works on solutions to trans-border issues and brainstorms ideas for economic growth. Notable speakers included Alaska’s Lieutenant Governor Sean Parnell, British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell, United States Ambassador to Canada David Wilkins and Alaska Tanker Company CEO Anil Mathur.

BP Inc., which announced in May its intention to explore coalbed methane development in the headwaters of the Flathead River in southeastern B.C., is one of PNWER’s four “Diamond” sponsors. Diamond sponsors pay $50,000 to have their logos displayed on the front page of the PNWER Web site and publications, along with a number of other privileges, including the opportunity for the CEO to address the summit, to help plan a private event, prominently display banners and a booth. BP was listed as a “Platinum” sponsor of the summit, which indicates a contribution of $35,000.

Throughout the year, Diamond sponsors are invited to participate in trips by PNWER officers to Washington D.C. and Ottawa, as well as U.S. state and Canadian provincial capitals. Last Thursday was dedicated to a private tour of BP’s Prudhoe Bay oil field. PNWER’s other three major sponsors include ExxonMobil and the Canadian Consulate General. Natural gas pipeline developer TransCanada, a “Gold” sponsor, provided $25,000.

Public Service Commissioner Ken Toole, who represents the Flathead and surrounding counties, said he has received about 15 e-mails from Flathead constituents complaining that the PNWER summit is simply a junket allowing big business to cozy up with Canadian and U.S. elected officials behind closed doors.

“BP and TransCanada are two very large corporate interests that want to do coalbed methane in (the Canadian Flathead),” Toole, reached by phone in Polson last week, said. “The bottom line is, these corporations participate in this kind of activity to try and get their projects done.”

“You’ve got this supposedly neutral, quasi-public entity in PNWER,” Toole added. “They’re dependent on private interests for their existence – I think we need to question it.”

Matt Leow, executive director of the Montana Public Interest Research Group, joined Toole in calling PNWER “clearly a sophisticated lobbying operation,” and criticized the $425 registration fee required for the public to attend the summit.

“While corporate lobbyists have full access to lawmakers, everyday citizens are completely shut out of the discussion,” Leow added in a press release.

Established in 1991, PNWER is a unique amalgam of public and private interests. According to PNWER Policy and Communications Director Neil Parekh, most of the group’s funding comes from government sources. Montana statute requires that the state send delegates to the annual conferences, although only since 2005 has the state agreed to foot the bill for the trips. Washington state, Idaho and Oregon laws also formally declare membership. PNWER’s leadership is comprised of U.S. state and Canadian provincial lawmakers. Jim Kenyon, a representative of Canada’s Yukon Legislative Assembly serves as president, and state Rep. George Eskridge of Idaho is vice president.

While PNWER’s profile is growing along with the economy of the region it represents, awareness of the summit and the group itself still flies under the radar of many who follow such issues.

“I know nothing about it; I didn’t even know it existed,” said Prof. Tom Power, economics department chair at the University of Montana, when asked by the Beacon about PNWER. But at similar conferences Power has attended, “sponsorship by large companies is fairly standard,” he said.

Last week’s summit covered everything from border issues to preparing for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver to increasing trade with Asia.

“It’s really a way to meet your counterparts in Canada or other states and share with them how they tackled similar problems,” said Sen. Kim Gillan, D-Billings, one of Montana’s four delegates reached in Anchorage last week. “I’ve been to so many conferences and it’s really very good – concentrated, topical information is exchanged.”

Other delegates included Sen. Aubyn Curtiss, R-Fortine, Rep. Wanda Grinde, D-Billings, and Lincoln County Commissioner Marianne Roose of Eureka served as Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s representative.

While Montana’s other delegates could not be reached as of this writing, Gillan said she was not lobbied by BP: “I haven’t even met one person from BP since I’ve been here.”

Gillan also countered the notion that the PNWER summit is some kind of pro-industry function. One session she attended focused on increasing the mobility of engineers on either side of the border, and another dealt with a proposed new gas pipeline in Alaska that she said was “definitely a robust discussion of those for it and those against it.”

BP Alaska spokesman Daren Beaudo said his corporation, with tens of billions of dollars invested in the state, is a natural host for this year’s PNWER summit in Alaska. BP is currently trying to promote the development of a pipeline to transport crude oil and natural gas from the Prudhoe Bay field on Alaska’s north slope to markets on the west coast of the U.S.

“It’s supporting dialogue, it’s supporting interest in economic issues that cross economic boundaries,” Beaudo said of BP’s sponsorship. “We feel we’re being good corporate citizens by helping to enable these events to take place.”

As for BP’s proposal to explore for coalbed methane north of the Flathead, Beaudo said it was not a focus of the summit.

“I doubt that this issue has come up, but I’m not aware for a fact that it hasn’t,” he said. “This is about being a good host to visitors.”