WASHINGTON — Alaska's senior Senator Lisa Murkowski criticized the Interior Department in a hearing Thursday over a tweet promoting a meeting with Alaska Natives who are opposed to drilling in the Arctic, arguing that they do not represent the true opinions of most Alaskans.
The hearing, coupled with a series of meetings and speeches around Washington, D.C., this week, demonstrated a clear divide in who has the ear of lawmakers and leaders when it comes to considering the future of Alaska's oil fields.
Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, held a hearing Thursday on the Interior Department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management's latest draft five-year plan for offshore drilling lease sales from 2017 to 2022.
The plan offers limited sales for offshore drilling in Alaska, and revoked plans for a lease sale in East Coast Atlantic Ocean waters. It "pains me to say this, but we now effectively have a Gulf of Mexico leasing program and the shadow of a program for three major planning areas in Alaska. The (Interior) Department has concluded after years of study that just 13 percent of our nation's OCS should be available for leasing," Murkowski said at the hearing.
The hearing came just a day after the Alaska delegation — Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young — sent a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell urging broader lease sales in the Arctic and complaining of canceled lease sales. The Interior Department, for its part, has argued that sales were canceled due to waning interest.
But in the audience of the hearing Thursday sat several Alaskan Natives from Point Lay who had traveled 4,000 miles to Washington to urge the Obama administration to do otherwise.
The Natives from Point Lay, on coast of the Chukchi Sea, say not everyone in Alaska wants the oil industry up in the Arctic.
There "are many people in every village that aren't being heard because they're out there living their way of life," said Lloyd Pikok, vice president of the Point Lay Tribal Council. "We aren't a minority, we just aren't being heard."
The village council has passed a resolution urging the Interior Department to cancel all lease sales in the Arctic, citing the threats of climate change and other environmental hazards of drilling on their subsistence lifestyle.
In Washington this week, courtesy of the Alaska Wilderness League, the group of seven was heard by the Obama administration, but not by Murkowski's office. They visited with Mark Brzezinski, executive director of the U.S. Arctic Steering Committee, at the White House; he mentioned the meeting in a speech Thursday afternoon.
"What brought us here was the fact that our voices are not being heard," said Jane Tukrook, the tribal administrator in Point Lay. Tukrook spoke of the negative impacts of air pollution from drilling operations in the Arctic, and a disconnect between villages and their corresponding Native corporations.
And the group met with officials from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management — a visit memorialized with a tweet that riled Murkowski. The tweet, posted Wednesday, shows the visitors from Point Lay and BOEM Director Abigail Ross Hopper, who testified before Murkowski's committee Thursday, and indicated they had met to discuss the villagers' opposition to Arctic drilling.
Murkowski, worried that BOEM may take further steps to limit Arctic drilling, argued that the tweet revealed the true intentions at the department. "I looked at [the tweet] and it doesn't necessarily show me that there's impartiality within BOEM. How do we not conclude that the die is already cast and that your agency has already decided what it is that you are going to be doing?" she asked.
Later in the hearing, Hopper raised the issue again — saying that while it's not how she saw the tweet, "I personally apologize" if it was written in a way that implied that BOEM is not impartial. "That is not at all the way that we operate," Hopper said.
"That was my impression. It may not be others'," Murkowski said.
Hopper does have her own twitter account — @Director_Hopper — on which, Bloomberg reporter Mark Drajem pointed out, the last stakeholder meeting shown was with the American Petroleum Institute. (The tweet was signed "ARH," indicating it was posted directly by Hopper and not a staffer.)
Hopper also indicated in her testimony at the request of Alaska Gov. Bill Walker, "BOEM is considering moving the Beaufort Sea sale (up) to 2019."
Nevertheless, Murkowski argued several times in the hearing that the state of Alaskans' opinion on offshore drilling is solidly favorable. She cited a 2014 poll by the pro-drilling group Consumer Energy Alliance that found 73 percent of Alaskans support Arctic drilling.
The issue is causing a rift in many Native villages, Pikok said. "And so this divide is blinding us from the beauty and the reasons why our ancestors fought and as a young Native leader, it was scary knowing that we were being heard in very few numbers, and the power of the industry is scary."
That divide was evident even in the hearing room, where Wainwright Mayor John Hopson, Jr., spoke of a difficult future without oil drilling in the Arctic.
Hopson testified that he thinks "many Americans would prefer that America's Arctic communities somehow reflect the image one might see in an oil painting of the 19th century Arctic – an icy landscape dotted with undeveloped Inuit villages. That is neither realistic nor is it appropriate," Hopson said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed statements made by John Hopson Jr. to Abigail Ross Hopper. This story has been updated to correct these attributions.