Fireworks fizzle after alleged threat over vote

  • Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaks with Sen. Lisa Murkowski at the Interior Department in Washington, D.C., on March 29 after signing an order lifting a moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands and a related order on coal royalties. There’s no indication yet that the Trump administration is following through on an alleged threat against the state after Murkowski cast a vote July 25 against opening debate to repeal or replace the Affordable Care Act. (Photo/Molly Riley/AP)

The political fireworks lit by Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s vote against Senate Republicans’ push to quickly repeal the Affordable Care Act so far appear to have been duds, which could be a good thing for many in Alaska’s resource development industries.

The seemingly odd mix of health care and resource issues was blended July 26 when Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan separately on behalf of President Donald Trump and expressed displeasure with her vote.

Later that day Sullivan’s spokesman Mike Anderson wrote in an email to the Journal that the senator — who unlike Murkowski voted to open floor debate on repealing and replacing the heath care law — was “very concerned about Alaska’s economy” as a result of his call with Zinke.

As the nation’s chief manager of federal lands the Interior secretary is often rhetorically referred to as Alaska’s “landlord” given the federal government controls more than 60 percent of the acreage in the state. That acreage includes the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska; areas Republicans view as the next frontiers for North Slope oil and natural gas development.

Zinke subsequently called reports that he called to threaten the Alaska senators over Murkowski’s health care votes “laughable,” as reported by The Associated Press July 31. He said he regularly talks with the senators and has a good working relationship with them.

Zinke made a several-day trip to Alaska in late May, touring North Slope oil infrastructure and participating in Memorial Day ceremonies in the state.

He also signed a secretarial order at the Alaska Oil and Gas Association’s annual conference in Anchorage May 31 directing Interior Department agencies to update oil and gas resource assessments for the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

The resource assessments are seen as precursors to potential action by the Trump administration to allow more oil and gas activity in the North Slope federal holdings.

Opening the ANWR coastal plain to exploration drilling would require an act of Congress.

Zinke said repeatedly during his trip to the state that Alaska must play a lead role in the administration’s quest for “American energy dominance.”

Murkowski spokeswoman Karina Petersen confirmed the senator first took a call from President Donald Trump and then after the July 25 vote to open debate took another call from Zinke, “who passed along to her during that call that the president wasn’t pleased with her vote,” Petersen wrote in an email to the Journal.

Murkowski has long been an ardent critic of the Affordable Care Act, stressing the fact that the average health insurance premium for individual Alaskans buying their own policy under the law is more than $900 per month, which is the highest in the country.

However, of late she has also been one of numerous Republicans who have also been highly critical of the process their party’s leadership has chosen in drafting replacement legislation — and the legislation itself. The bills have mostly been written in private without the traditional committee process or the public or Democrat input Murkowski contends is necessary to reform a system as important and complex as the nation’s health insurance.

In the end, Murkowski said in multiple statements from her office that she chose proper process over her party’s political priorities and hopes a health insurance reform bill can still be drafted and garner her support.

That is not to say Murkowski did not engage in what looked like political gamesmanship as well. She chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has oversight of the Interior Department, and shortly before news broke of Zinke’s call with Sullivan she postponed a July 27 hearing at which six of the president’s mid-level Energy and Interior department appointees were to be considered.

Committee spokeswoman Nicole Daigle said the hearing — announced less than a day before it was suspended — was postponed due to uncertainty about the Senate’s scheduling and a new date is being worked on.

As for Sullivan’s concerns about Alaska’s economy, a prominent state business leader said he hasn’t seen evidence of retribution against the state by the Trump administration.

Alaska Chamber CEO Curtis Thayer said he also got a call from the nation’s capital July 26, but his call was from a friend there who said if he received a call from an unknown number he should answer it, as it would likely be from Zinke’s office.

Thayer then got in touch with Rep. Don Young’s and Sullivan’s offices and asked if there was anything he should be aware of, he said.

According to Thayer, he was told Sullivan and Young had both spoken to Zinke about resource development issues in their state and Young had then followed up with a call directly to the White House.

Thayer said he believed he was on a list of Alaskans Interior officials were to call because he represents much of the state’s business, and resource development, community.

“The call (from Zinke’s office) never came so I can’t really guess what it was about but I assume that there was the linkage between health care and Alaska’s resource development,” he said.

To that end, a ConocoPhillips Alaska spokeswoman said the company has not noticed any changes to the permitting efforts for its projects in the NPR-A.

Daigle also said there is no indication the Interior Department has changed any of its policies regarding Alaska of late.

Sullivan spokesman Anderson said there was nothing to add in response to questions about whether the senator’s concerns had been validated.

Thayer said he would be surprised if the administration actually tried to exact revenge in any material form on Alaska as a result of Murkowski’s health insurance votes.

“I just don’t see with Secretary Zinke visiting here in May and the comments he made publicly — and the direction of the delegation — I don’t see a harsh penalty,” he said. “I think there could be a reminder that we need to work together; you have things we need and we have things you need, but I just don’t see it being a long-term penalty — penalizing the state.”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

08/02/2017 - 12:53pm