Issues unresolved after meeting with Jewell

KOTZEBUE — Alaska legislators left Kotzebue unsatisfied after a Feb. 16 meeting with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

Attempts by the Obama administration to limit North Slope oil and gas development were the focus of the roughly hour-long meeting.

Members of the bipartisan — though mostly Republican — group said they repeatedly expressed their frustration to Jewell about the Interior Department push to permanently lock up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain from oil and gas development.

Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, said she thought Jewell was defensive in the meeting and that the president’s recommendation through the Interior Department to designate the coastal plain as wilderness “misses the mark” because the state has pushed for decades to develop, or just explore the area.

The wilderness designation would prevent all development activity and restrict motorized transportation in that portion of the refuge.

Alaska cannot survive financially without being able to access its resources, said Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla.

“The very concept of the state is predicated on the development of natural resources,” Dunleavy said in a press conference with other legislators. “We barely became a state because there were those in (Washington, D.C., before statehood) that didn’t think we could make it on our own.”

Bethel Democrat Sen. Lyman Hoffman said he told Jewell that developing the state’s resources would help provide funding to improve living standards and social ills in rural Alaska.

The Interior Secretary traveled to Northwest Alaska for two days and met with state legislators, Gov. Bill Walker and the Alaska congressional delegation. The impetus for the trip was a private Feb. 17 meeting with the Alaska Federation of Natives board of directors.

For her part, Jewell said to reporters prior to her meeting with the legislators that Congress had the opportunity to approve oil and gas exploration in the late 1980s but declined to do so. President Obama and the Interior Department have made the wilderness recommendation and now it’s up to a Republican Congress, which is at odds with the president over his resistance to approve the Keystone XL pipeline in the Lower 48, to decide what it wants to do with ANWR’s coastal plain.

Jewell said she believes she is an easy target, but that there is “a lot of pain being felt in Alaska” right now because of the impact falling oil prices have had on the state’s budget and savings.

Recent Outer Continental Shelf oil and gas lease sales and the approval of ConocoPhillips’ Greater Moose’s Tooth-1 construction plan in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska as proof of the administration’s support for “responsible and safe oil and gas development,” she said.

Oil prices are likely to rebound and ease the state’s budget problems, according to Jewell.

“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is not going to solve the dependency of the state on a commodity,” she said.

The administration has no plans to use the Antiquities Act, a law that protects archeological sites as public resources, as a means of protecting the ANWR coastal plain.

Senate President Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, said the state has a long-term production problem, not just an immediate oil price problem.

North Slope Borough Mayor Charlotte Brower joined the nine-member delegation state legislators in their meeting with Jewell.

Brower said she is unhappy with attempts by the administration to lock up portions of NPR-A originally designated for development. She said the Secretary needs to spend a week in each region of the state to understand Alaska and along with the legislators, invited President Obama for an extended visit.

Along with Brower, Millett criticized the federal governments reluctance to spend money to clean up leaking legacy oil wells left on the Slope after exploratory drilling done in the 1940s. Millett went as far as to say it’s “hypocrisy” for Jewell to limit development other places while refusing to solve an ongoing pollution problem cause by the feds years ago.

“Frankly, if she cares about the environment she’d clean up the legacy wells,” Millett said.

The legislators said the next step is to strengthen their relationship with Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young  — to see what each group could do to make the state’s voice louder.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

11/18/2016 - 4:13pm