After President Barack Obama announced a plan to designate most of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, Alaska lawmakers seized a chance to meet his Interior Secretary on their own turf.
A team of nine legislators took a break from session work in Juneau to travel to Kotzebue this week to confront Sally Jewell about those actions. But while the meeting was hyped, neither the delegation nor the Secretary described it as a showdown.
The meeting location was kept secret from the public, so secret that Sally Jewell herself reportedly was delayed half an hour. Once the Interior Secretary arrived, a team made of nine legislators and North Slope Borough Mayor Charlotte Brower proceeded to air their grievances over how the Obama Administration is managing Alaska. But despite the delegation’s fury leading up to the event.
“There were no fireworks,” Sen. Mike Dunleavy, a Mat-Su Republican who previously lived in Kotzebue, said. He says he left the meeting unsatisfied.
At a Monday night press conference at the Nullagvik Hotel, Dunleavy described the conversation as polite, but said nothing was really accomplished and that Alaska lawmakers might have better luck dealing with the state’s congressional delegation if they want to see more land opened to drilling.
“What’s the definition of insanity?” Dunleavy said. “Doing the same thing over and over again.”
“So, we have to have a discussion with them and come up with a game plan that is a little different from what we’ve been doing in the past.”
Over the course of the press conference, legislators used variations of the word “frustrated” about a dozen times. They stressed the importance of developing more oil in the state, because most of Alaska’s tax revenue comes from its production.
While some, like Senate President and Anchorage Republican Kevin Meyer described it as a “good dialogue,” Majority Leader Charisse Millett noted the meeting got “heated” at points. When Jewell gave a justification for the administration’s wilderness plan, the Anchorage Republican confronted her about so-called “legacy wells” that were drilled by the federal government but never cleaned up. Millett was not placated by the response.
“I understand she wants to hit the reset button. She said it several times. Hitting the reset button with Alaskans would mean that she would have to and the federal government would have to sit down and listen to us,” Millett said. “Not just come up and give us platitudes, and pat us on the head.”
At a press conference held outside, with snowmachiners racing in the background, Jewell pushed back when asked if the meeting was a “showdown.”
“A showdown?” responded Jewell. “I think there is a lot of pain being felt in Alaska because of oil prices. I may be an easy target, but the reality is oil prices have fallen dramatically and that’s impacted the state’s budget.”
Jewell said she understood the state’s economic position, but that low oil prices could be a “shorter term phenomenon.”
And in the long term she said, “The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is not going to solve dependence of a state on a commodity price.”
The proposal to designate 12 million acres of Arctic refuge land as wilderness would have to be approved by Congress, unless the president takes an executive action and treats the land as a monument under the Antiquities Act. While Jewell said there were no plans to use that authority, she was firm on the Administration’s position on the refuge.
“We believe the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is – I mean it is – one of the most intact ecosystems in the world, and we think keeping it that way is very important,” Jewell said. “We do know that oil and gas development has impacts. It has impacts on wildlife, it has impacts on water quality and air quality. And we believe the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is too special to develop.”
Jewell added that she hopes to see better cooperation between the state and federal governments in the future, and that in her meeting with legislators she suggested creating a task force to improve communication.
Watch the full Sally Jewell press conference: