Natural Resource Development
Representing Diverse Concerns
Q&A with Resource Development Council for Alaska Executive Director Leila Kimbrell
By Tasha Anderson
Kerry Tasker

esource Development Council for Alaska (RDC) Executive Director Leila Kimbrell was born and raised in Alaska, growing up on the Kenai Peninsula on the family homestead. Her grandparents were small business owners that often involved themselves in local chambers of commerce; her grandfather, specifically, got involved in politics around the time Kimbrell was entering high school and considering her future, and his involvement “started piquing my interest,” she says, in governance and policy. It helped set her on a path to graduate from UAA with a focus on law and policy before going on to law school at Willamette University College of Law.

After law school, Kimbrell held alternating positions in legal private practice and working for US Senator Lisa Murkowski, which focused much of her professional attention on Alaska’s resources and lands. This education and work experience combined with her personal experience of how important natural resources are to Alaska is what attracted her to apply to be the executive director of RDC for Alaska when the position opened about two years ago.

“[Natural resources] almost define who we are in Alaska,” she says. “When we became a state, the agreement with the federal government was that we would rely on monetizing our natural resources to help provide essential government services. You can see how important these industries are to our economy. You have to use what you have in your back yard, and we have a lot of natural resources available to us.”

In the following Q&A, Kimbrell talks more about the importance of RDC for Alaska’s work in supporting natural resource development in the 49th state.

Alaska Business: RDC defines “natural resources” more broadly than other organizations might. What’s included under RDC’s umbrella of “natural resources”?

Leila Kimbrell: RDC’s mission is growing Alaska through the responsible development of our natural resources. We represent five key industries, and it makes us quite diverse. We have mining and oil and gas—as you would naturally assume—and then we have timber, fishing, and tourism.

We have a seventy-eight member board, and we have more than 700 members, and that brings a lot of diverse views to the table as we look at Alaska as a whole. That’s been the goal of RDC: how do we all work together to make Alaska a place that we all want to live, and work, and play.

That makes for a unique and diverse organization, and we don’t always have agreement but we do more often than you might think. Some people might ask, “Well, how does tourism fit into our natural resources?” thinking of traditional natural resources, stuff that comes out of the ground or timber that you harvest. When we talk about tourism, we’re talking about our human resources and also our scenic resources.

AB: We have far more people who visit here than even live here.

Kimbrell: Exactly. So we look at tourism as a natural resource in those ways.

And of course [mining, oil and gas, fishing, timber, and tourism] doesn’t include all of the resources we have. People looking to other technologies for energy production, whether it’s hydro power, solar, or wind, and how those resources are providing opportunities around the state to help lower energy costs. How those technologies can help support or resource development projects around the state—especially in our remote areas—is certainly something that we have to think about.

AB: Do you also advocate for those kinds of projects, or is that something you’re considering to make part of your mission in the future?

Kimbrell: It’s something that RDC is looking at, especially as we grow. Many of our members use those forms of technology to help reduce energy costs depending on where the project is located: Southeast obviously relies on a lot of hydro power. And as more micro-grid technologies come online, providing a more reliable form of energy in areas that are remote or don’t have a reliable source of energy, that’s key to every single development project for all of our members.

“We can’t keep Alaska in a little snow globe. It’s nice for folks outside of Alaska who may not understand our mission to think about just keeping us nice and pure as the snow is white, but that’s not realistic, and it doesn’t actually align with the record that we have on the environmental side.”
Leila Kimbrell, Executive Director, Resource Development Council for Alaska
AB: You do have a diverse group of members and industries that you represent, and as you mentioned they don’t always agree on the best path forward. So how do you, in your role, navigate supporting your members if they are on opposite sides of an issue or a project?

Kimbrell: We are run by a board, and the board will make a decision on whether there’s a policy position or something that RDC takes a public stand on. When the board can’t find alignment on a project or an issue, we may not have a public position.

Ultimately what we focus on is the process: when our member projects are going through the permitting application process, whether it’s through the federal or state agencies, we advocate for a fair and consistent process. We may not have a position on a specific project, but we’re always going to advocate that everybody gets their fair shake at the agency level.

The Willow Project is a recent example of lots of people coming together to advocate for a fair process at the federal level. Whether our members personally supported Willow or not, the fact that it had gone through so many years of permitting, and back and forth, and back and forth, we really saw a diversity of different groups coming out and saying, “We want a fair process for the North Slope.”

AB: We’ve seen similar policy problems for other projects, such as the Pebble Project or the Roadless Rule in Southeast.

Kimbrell: Right, the repeal of the Roadless Rule for Alaska. That really isn’t about timber harvest; under the current management plan that the US Forest Service has in place, reinstating the Roadless Rule tomorrow is not going to impact the current harvest levels that are set forth in that management plan. But what this is about, for Alaska, is access to our other mineral resources, it’s access to cheaper forms of hydroelectric energy power (compared to diesel generation). We’re talking about maintenance roads: limited, restricted access. Someone mentioned to me the other day that, currently, some of the maintenance on electrical transmission lines has to occur by helicopter, because you can’t get an access road in the Tongass with the current restrictions. This isn’t realistic.

That’s long been a challenge Alaska has had with the federal government. So RDC continues to advocate for those reasonable opportunities. When you look at the 16 million-plus acres that is the Tongass National Forest, and then you look at the communities in Southeast, we’re not talking about clear-cutting; we’re not talking about building an interstate superhighway system. We’re talking about reasonable access so that Alaskans can responsibly develop our natural resources and support local jobs and communities.

AB: Beyond access to resources, what other obstacles or challenges are your members facing?

Kimbrell: Many of our members still have labor challenges. It’s a numbers game; we just don’t have enough workers in Alaska. What can we do to help attract people to remain in Alaska, get their training here, get their education here? There’s always a conversation happening around workforce development and addressing the labor needs for our companies.

As an example, a bright spot but also a challenge, is—with the excitement of the Willow Project with ConocoPhillips and the Pikka Project with Santos—there’s a lot of activity and a lot of optimism about what’s happening on the North Slope right now… When those projects come online, some have talked about it being similar to the TAPS (Trans Alaska Pipeline System) construction era of the ‘70s in terms of worker needs. That’s great news for Alaska, but again, where will all those workers come from?

On the minerals side, there has been a lot of focus and conversation on critical minerals and where Alaska’s role is in that development. Alaska has a lot of these minerals. It is good to see the Biden administration focusing on critical minerals for the clean energy transition, as well as our nation’s national security and energy independence. However, a challenge we face with in permitting. While the Biden Administration says it wants these minerals prioritized domestically, the permitting agencies are continually blocking or delaying good projects like Pebble and the Ambler Access Project. And what will that mean with the current geopolitical landscape that we have? This inconsistent message isn’t good for our domestic security.

AB: Speaking of that landscape, one of the things I find interesting about our current administration are those policies promoting mineral development, but then there seems to be a persisting idea that Alaska is pristine and shouldn’t have any additional development. Have you felt any of that tension as you’ve worked with the administration?

Kimbrell: Yes, I would agree with that, and at times it’s been quite frustrating. On the one hand, we’re getting messages out of the Biden Administration that we want to promote domestic mineral production—they are adopting policies to even expedite that, adding to the critical minerals list— and then on the other hand we see projects in Alaska where the permitting process is almost getting reversed. Looking at some of these areas where Alaska could support our nation’s critical mineral needs, the Ambler Access Project is a great example. That’s been delayed in its permitting for years, and so that’s really a frustration. Watching the first ever preemptive veto of a project by the EPA—the Pebble Project—sets a dangerous precedent. It’s frustrating to see the Biden Administration prioritize clean energy technologies, like battery storage and electric vehicles, only to watch them pursue trade agreements for the minerals necessary to produce these technologies with other countries. Alaska checks the list for every mineral listed on the critical minerals list, along with rare earth elements, plus gold, silver, and copper.

We are also very frustrated by the Administration’s recent announcements to cancel the leases in ANWR and further restrict oil and gas development in the National Petroleum Reserve–Alaska. We are monitoring those decisions and will be submitting comments, but when you look around the world with the events happening with Russia’s war on Ukraine and now the attack by Hamas on Israel—why is our federal government locking up our opportunity to produce resources vital to our national security and energy independence? It sends the wrong signal to the world.

We can’t keep Alaska in a little snow globe. It’s nice for folks outside of Alaska who may not understand our mission to think about just keeping us nice and pure as the snow is white, but that’s not realistic, and it doesn’t actually align with the record that we have on the environmental side. Alaskan projects are held to some of the highest environmental standards compared to anywhere else in the world, and even within our own country. We see differences between operations in the Lower 48 versus operations here in the state.

We have excellent labor standards and labor protections, in addition to those high environmental standards, so why wouldn’t we want to have responsibly developed resources right here? Cobalt is a great example: look at what’s happening in the [Democratic Republic of the] Congo where there are no labor standards. Children as young as three years old are known to be working in those mines with no health and safety protections.

When you look at the health record, the labor record, and our environmental regulations that we all agree to, you won’t find anyone in Alaska that disagrees with doing something in a responsible way.

AB: Switching topics, in addition to investing in Alaska, RDC invests in its own annual conference. What’s the value that you continue to see in hosting this conference year after year?

Kimbrell: That’s a great question, because normally it’s asked in the reverse: “Why should I invest in your event?” This is going to be our forty-fourth annual Alaska Resources Conference [November 15-16], which is Alaska’s largest natural resource focused conference. Last year we had more than 800 registrants. In part, it’s that networking opportunity for those who attend our conference to be exposed to more than just the industry they’re focused on, to hear all the industry updates. And coming back to this theme I mentioned earlier, it’s an example of how we all work together and how we all need each other to have that diversity that’s going to create a strong economy for us. Forty-four years and running, it’s just an awesome opportunity to see what’s happening in our resources industries.

This year, our theme is “Alaska’s Resources: Leading the Way.” I’m excited for this year’s theme as we focus on Alaska’s role in the future of critical minerals, new technologies, responsible resource development on a national and international scale and how we are leading the way on several fronts, including with our community and Alaska Native partners.

AB: With that big picture in mind, what priorities or goals does RDC have to advocate on behalf of your members?

Kimbrell: Each year our board comes together and identifies its policy priorities for the year. They frequently and consistently focus on keeping a reliable tax structure in place, making sure local and state governments have responsible budgeting and balanced budgets before looking to new sources of revenues. Frequently what impacts our members the most is when the state starts talking about changing tax policy. We will stay focused on that, especially with the introduction of new oil tax legislation this past session. It didn’t pass this year, but we know it’s still on the table and may come back to us in January. The real issue when these conversations take place at the policy level, it changes the investment climate in terms of certainty and predictability. When investment climate chills, then we potentially lose revenues because lack of investment means no development. No development means no jobs or revenue generation. It’s a careful balance.

Another priority that we have is to reform the state initiative and referendum process. This has been a priority for RDC for a number of years as we see cases come out of the Alaska Supreme Court where we think the court got it wrong and muddied the waters. To be clear, this is not an effort to do away with the initiative process, because that’s an important part of our democratic system. However, there are improvements that can be made to bring certainty and add clarity to some of those previous court decisions. There have been a couple of legislative proposals in the past that we have supported in that regard and we will continue to work on in the future.