Oral arguments were heard Tuesday in the state's legal bid to crack open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to its first oil and gas exploration in decades, with lawyers jousting in federal court over whether Congress wanted updates on the oil potential of a coastal swath of the 19-million-acre refuge atop Alaska.
And in Washington, D.C., an aide to Sen. Lisa Murkowski said that as the new chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Murkowski is strategizing on the best way to convince Congress to open the 1.5-million-acre coastal stretch of the refuge, set aside by Congress in 1980 for hydrocarbon evaluation.
Murkowski, a Republican, is facing recent criticism from Democrats and other Alaskans who believe she is not doing enough to open the potentially oil-rich area while she advocates strongly for the Keystone XL pipeline that would deliver tar-sands crude from Canada to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Robert Dillon, a Murkowski aide and communications director for the Energy Committee, said Murkowski is working to convince her colleagues about the value of opening the coastal area for oil and gas exploration.
The Alaska congressional delegation has unsuccessfully tried to open the Arctic plain for decades, but Murkowski isn't giving up. "Sen. Murkowski is a strong supporter of opening ANWR and has introduced legislation in every Congress (she has served in) and will do so at some point in this Congress," Dillon said.
The Alaska Democratic Party recently argued that the Keystone XL bill would put more oil on the market, hurting oil-dependent Alaska by further bringing down oil prices while promoting development in Canada at the expense of the 49th state.
"It's time for Murkowski to start setting an agenda based on Alaska priorities, not take orders from lobbyists" in D.C., said Mike Wenstrup, chair of the Alaska Democratic Party, in a recent statement.
Dillon said Murkowski has not included an ANWR measure in the Keystone pipeline bill she is promoting because that would give President Obama -- who has said he would veto both measures -- a larger target and an easier way out when he seeks to explain why he vetoed Keystone.
You don't give Obama "more cover," by putting two potential vetoes into one package, Dillon said. Obama should face the music on Keystone individually, a measure that most Americans support, he said.
Murkowski said in a Friday floor speech that in addition to carrying Canadian crude, the Keystone pipeline would move about 100,000 barrels of Bakken crude from North Dakota and Montana down the nation's mid-section, reducing the potential for that oil to flow to the West Coast where Alaska crude is refined.
Alaska North Slope crude is already seeing competition from shale-crude produced in the Bakken and elsewhere and headed by rail to the West Coast, she said.
"Keystone XL is not bad for Alaska; it will help us," Murkowski said. "But I am also well aware that it is hardly the only help we need right now."
As for Alaska's inventive lawsuit against Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and other federal officials, the state's attempt at an exploration update in ANWR comes close to three decades after many thought the issue was settled, following oil and gas exploration in the early 1980s and a report to Congress in 1987 on the potential effects of oil development on the coastal plain.
State assistant attorney general Michael Schechter argued Tuesday that Congress supported continued oil and gas exploration in the coastal area after 1987. That's because Congress created no exploration deadline in the 1980 law that expanded the refuge and set aside the coastal area for study.
That lack of a deadline was meant to account for things like improvements in technology that can provide a better snapshot of the reserve's oil and gas potential, Schechter said. Three-dimensional seismic exploration from the surface that does not involve drilling would permit an environmentally safe analysis and update the relatively simple and sparse data gathered from a two-dimensional seismic review done in the early 1980s.
Rachel Roberts, a Justice Department attorney, as well as Suzanne Bostrom, representing conservation and Alaska Native groups that have intervened on the federal government's side, said the state is looking only at a narrow section of the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act to make its point.
Bostrom said Congress wanted a limit on oil and gas exploration -- a limit that was reached in 1987.
"Congress said the program culminated, meaning it ended, when the report was submitted," she said.
Former Gov. Sean Parnell sparked this fight almost two years ago when he wrote a letter to Jewell saying he was disappointed that a draft conservation plan for the refuge did not include a section for oil and gas evaluation. The state offered a plan calling for surface seismic exploration and a commitment to put $50 million toward a proposed joint study with the U.S. Geological Survey.
Conservation groups called the plan "silly" and the Interior Department refused to review it, saying it could find no legislative history supporting the view that exploration would continue after the 1987 report to Congress.
Attorney General Michael Geraghty sued last spring, saying the Interior Department was required to review the state's proposal.
In the short hearing on Tuesday, Judge Sharon Gleason, an Obama appointee, asked several technical questions of attorneys on both sides and said she would take the issue under advisement.
A decision is expected in the coming weeks, lawyers said, in what is considered a fairly narrow legal question.
"The judge's decision should resolve it," said Schechter.