Sec. Jewell on the Hot Seat in Murkowski’s Committee

Sen. Lisa Murkowski confronted Interior Secretary Sally Jewell today  at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The subject was the president’s proposed budget for the Interior Department. But Murkowski used the occasion to bash Jewell for recent department decisions blocking oil development on the North Slope.

“Interior’s decisions are hurting Alaskans. You’re depriving us of jobs, revenue, security and prosperity,” Murkowski told her.

The senator says the Obama administration, by putting 22 million acres of Arctic land and waters off-limits in recent weeks, will starve the trans-Alaska pipeline of oil.  Jewell says that’s not her intent, and she suggests it’s not the government’s fault.

“Senator, I am fully committed to supporting the efforts in the North Slope of Alaska to keep the trans-Alaska pipeline full,” Jewell said. “As you know, I worked on that pipeline as a college student. As a petroleum engineer, I understand how fields peak, and Prudhoe Bay oil field and related oil fields have been passed their peak production for some time, I’m aware of that.”

The Interior secretary says her department is only protecting areas that have the highest ecological value, or those identified by subsistence whalers. Jewell says in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, 72 percent of the estimated recoverable oil is in areas open to leasing.

“And we have recently approved ConocoPhillips’ preferred proposal for drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve,” Jewell said.  “Offshore, 90 percent of the estimated recoverable oil and gas will be available for leasing in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.”

Murkowski also brought up another sore point: the road that could connect King Cove to Cold Bay. Murkowski says if sick and injured people could get to Cold Bay’s larger airport, they could more safely reach a hospital, but Jewell, in late 2013, rejected a proposed 10-mile road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to connect the communities.

“Do you know when King Cove saw its most recent Medevac?” Murkowski asked.

“I’m not aware of their most recent Medevac,” Jewell admitted.

“It was Sunday. Sunday night,” the senator said. “Do you know how many Medevacs have been carried out so far in 2015?

Jewell didn’t know that either. The answer was five. And, Murkowski says, there’ve been 21 Medevacs, some by Coast Guard helicopter, from King Cove in the 14 months since Jewell rejected the single-lane gravel road.

Jewell says her trip to Kivalina last week reminded her that King Cove isn’t the only Alaska community with difficult access.

“There are many villages that struggle in the case of medical evacuations and I appreciate it’s part of our job to work on that, and I will continue to work with you on that,” Jewell said.

Murkowski says, of all the isolated communities, King Cove is the only one with an all-weather airport so close, and she’s dismayed the president’s budget includes no solutions for King Cove.

Jewell says Interior is considering alternative access through the refuge, maybe by air or water.