WASHINGTON -- Alaska Gov. Bill Walker and Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott are trying to keep a new long-distance relationship going, courting the Obama administration in hopes of bringing August's presidential promises to fruition.
Last week, Walker and Mallott made quick trips to Washington, D.C., for a whirlwind series of meetings aimed at a range of issues, from refocusing the Denali Commission to a long-shot request to allow drilling in the "10-02" area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
At the same time, Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz was also in Washington, D.C., for a one-day trip focused on climate change, centered around a State Department event.
Walker, who scored an Air Force One sit-down with President Barack Obama on his way to Alaska in August, set up meetings with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Obama's senior energy adviser Brian Deese in the wake of Shell's decision to pull out of its long-suffering Arctic offshore drilling project.
The effort recognizes several realities for the state: the federal government has a major role in Alaska, from funding tribes to the military to land management; Obama has taken an interest in Alaska, and it's best to exploit that now, lest the moment pass; and a slew of promises were made during Obama's trip, and in-person follow-up allows in-state insight.
Walker said the White House has been surprisingly open to one-on-one meetings with his administration. "I don't know if it's because I'm a nonpartisan, although sometimes the president brings that up. It gives me the opportunity. I don't wear a particular jersey, other than just the Alaskan one. So I think that gives me a different kind of access," Walker said.
Walker's efforts to push for drilling in ANWR, however, are not likely to result in much.
"Now, you know ANWR is a very controversial area," Mallott said. The policy moves necessary to open ANWR during the remainder of Obama's second term are "unlikely, if not impossible," Mallott said.
And in the meeting with Secretary Jewell, she "made it very clear that it is something that this administration does not support," Mallott said. But it is a "safe assumption" that won't happen during Obama's time in office, he said.
But they had to ask.
Walker acknowledged that during his flight with Obama in August, the president told him opening up ANWR to drilling is "going to be a bit of a challenge," he said Thursday. But Obama also suggested Walker sit down with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and adviser Brian Deese.
"But the White House visit, it was more to explain the impact that Shell has on us," Walker said. The governor urged White House officials to think of drilling in the 10-02 section the same way they approached offshore drilling.
And he sold it with Obama's favored way of thinking about Alaska: in terms of climate change.
Walker requested new scientific research be done in the 10-02 area to see what has changed -- whether caribou calving grounds are the same. "There's a lot of things that have changed because the whole weather system out there has changed," he said. "So the first step would be to have an analysis done by science, and not necessarily by politics."
The governor said he didn't expect the issue to be embraced.
"We'll continue to push on that pretty aggressively, because we have to. Where we are right now, we absolutely have to," Walker said.
Alaskans appeared this week to embrace one message of their own -- that the federal government wants to talk about climate change in Alaska.
Managing climate change
Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz was in Washington Thursday for a one-day trip, where he spoke on a panel with mayors from Boston and Japan, and attended a State Department event focused on cities managing impacts of climate change and working to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Berkowitz skipped right past Washington politicking when asked during a panel why mayors seem widely on board with climate change efforts, while the issue remains so hot-button in the Capitol.
"When you actually have to deal with people, you can't pander to ignorance, and you can't play to fears," Berkowitz quickly responded.
Berkowitz went on to tout the business benefits of climate change, pointing to a realization by ConocoPhillips of the costs of melting permafrost.
"ConocoPhillips recognized that the impact of climate change … was having significant cost impacts on their ability to maintain and operate infrastructure," he said. "And you look at the number of businesses across my state, across the country, across the world, that are managing this transition, business just like people live with climate change and they have to adapt to it and there's opportunities if they do so and there's costs for them when they don't."
Obama administration officials, meanwhile, often turned in meetings to an administration favorite when it comes to lowering carbon dioxide emissions -- natural gas -- Walker and Mallott said.
Staff repeatedly turned conversation back to efforts to expedite Alaska's natural gas pipeline; Walker described them as "anxious" to help do so.
Denali Commission revamp
The trip marked Mallott's second to D.C. since taking office in December, though Walker has taken a few more visits in that time.
"I don't think you sit down in a half-hour meeting or a two-hour meeting and actually come out with a deliverable. … What you do is you open up a discussion, open up a dialogue. I think that's important," Walker said.
Mallott, meanwhile, stayed in Washington a bit longer than Walker, though he was on East Coast ground for less than 48 hours.
He squeezed in several additional meetings -- most notably to discuss a revamp of the Denali Commission with White House officials.
During Obama's Alaska visit, one of his announcements was a "restructuring" of the commission -- a new mission focused on relocating drowning coastal communities.
The White House's Arctic steering committee is taking over the helm on the Washington, D.C., end, and Mallott discussed possible needs for a state-level focus.
Otherwise, Mallott met with Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan to discuss trans-boundary river issues tied up with mining near the border between Alaska and Canada. He also met with Charles Lawson, secretary of the International Joint Commission, which manages cross-boundary water relationships between the U.S. and Canada.
Walker and Mallott also met with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to discuss a needed permit for the Alaska Railroad to transport liquefied natural gas from Southcentral to Fairbanks, according to Walker's office.
Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Mark Myers and Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Valerie Davidson joined the trip as well.
Alaska Dispatch News reporter Nathaniel Herz contributed to this story.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing