Declaring that litigation and dialog appear to be getting the state nowhere, several Alaska lawmakers said after a meeting with the U.S. interior secretary on Monday that they'll be looking to the Alaska congressional delegation for help thwarting a federal government they claim is out of control.
Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young, reached late Monday night, said they're eager to help -- and work with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, chair of the Senate Energy Committee, which oversees the Interior Department.
The state legislators, led by Senate President Kevin Meyer and House Speaker Mike Chenault, said an hourlong exchange with Sally Jewell in the Northwest Alaska city of Kotzebue was productive. But they suggested in a press conference after the meeting that they want Congress to tighten the Interior Department's budget and pass legislation to limit executive actions.
They're angered by recent announcements from the Obama administration that the feds will seek to turn the potentially oil-rich coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge into a wilderness area and are removing areas of the U.S. Arctic Ocean from potential oil and gas development.
After hearing that Jewell would be flying to Northwest Alaska for an unusual Alaska Federation of Natives retreat this week, nine lawmakers left Juneau to fly to the region in a show of force aimed at highlighting how serious they are about resource development.
In a meeting with Jewell that included regional Native leaders such as North Slope Borough Mayor Charlotte Brower, they said they had a good dialog with Jewell without fireworks. Well, kind of.
It did get a little heated when Jewell became defensive, said Rep. Charisse Millett, House majority leader, who raised the issue of the federal government's legacy wells in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska,.
The federal government drilled those wells decades ago in the 23 million-acre reserve, but many were never properly cleaned. "Frankly, if she cared about the environment, she'd be cleaning up the legacy wells," said Millett.
"If anyone has any say over our lands, it should be local," she said. "It should be Alaskans. I'm still frustrated."
The legislators said they told Jewell that Alaska has a history of safe development, including at Red Dog Mine in Northwest Alaska and with oil and gas drilling from the North Slope to Cook Inlet.
Another theme presented: Alaska is a young state with huge infrastructure needs, with many villages still lacking sewer systems. "To address those needs we need to have the right to develop our resources," said Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel.
They noted that the Bureau of Land Management, under the Interior Department, recently accepted a development plan from ConocoPhillips that could lead to the first oil development in NPR-A, at a field known as Greater Moose's Tooth Unit 1 where production could reach up to 30,000 barrels daily.
They said that's a crumb compared to federal actions to limit development taken by the Obama administration.
Jewell told the legislators that the federal government needs to have a better dialog with the state, and it's time to hit the "reset" button on their relationship, they said.
Millett was skeptical. "If she wants to hit reset, the federal government has a lot of work to do," she said.
Young, who arrived in Kotzebue on Monday afternoon with the Alaska congressional delegation, said the key to reining in the Interior Department is to limit its funding, so it can't do such things as run ANWR as a de-facto wilderness without congressional approval.
Freshman Sen. Dan Sullivan said things are different now that the Republicans are in control of the Senate and House.
"Harry Reid and the previous Senate majority were very supportive of the agenda that these federal agencies have undertaken," he said. "The Republican Senate isn't."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing