NPR-A and Sealaska Lands Bills Up for Vote in DC

Two bills related to Alaska sailed out of a House committee Wednesday in Washington. They can now go to the floor of the House of Representatives for a full vote. The Republican-led Natural Resources Committee marked-up a bill that pushes development in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska, and one that would let the Native Corporation Sealaska swap lands in the Tongass National Forest.

Committee chairman Doc Hastings, Republican of Washington state, traveled to Alaska last month with Congressman Don Young, and sponsored the bill that promotes faster development in the Petroleum Reserve.

It directs the Interior Secretary to conduct one lease sale a year and for the next decade and streamlines the permitting process.

But Democrats say it’s a waste of time and money since President Obama has already pledged to hasten the leasing process in NPR-A, and just yesterday formed an interagency group tasked with better coordinating oil and gas development in Alaska.

Arizona Democrat Raul Grijalva spoke against the bill.

“Democrats support responsible drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve Alaska or NPR-A but HR 2150 would prevent the Department of Interior from conducting proper review in NPR-A by imposing artificial and unnecessary deadlines.”

Alaska’s Congressman Young scoffed at that and said Democrats on the committee had not given much support to development.

“You know that reminds me of those people who smoke marijuana but don’t inhale. That’s how much sense it makes. I’m suggesting this bill really doesn’t go far enough or fast enough.”

Young railed against importing oil from the Middle East instead of drilling more in Alaska, and claimed this bill would help.

“Now if you want to have that dependency on those people who wear different types of clothes in the Far East, you have at it. And feel proud of yourself while you’re at it. Because you’re sending your jobs and the blood of this country overseas. We’re in Libya now with your president. For what? Because the French needed the oil.”

But Young fought an amendment by democrats calling for the oil produced from the Reserves to stay in the United States and reduce foreign oil imports. That proposal failed to pass without Republican support.

The other bill, the Sealaska lands bill, is controversial in Alaska. It would let the southeast Native corporation trade lands they’re entitled to under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act with other lands in the Tongass. The corporation says it will allow them to finalize their entitlement claims.

But the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, Massachusetts Representative Ed Markey, brought up the concerns of environmentalists and some residents in Southeast Alaska.

“Issues such as potential impacts to water quality, salmon, old growth timber and local communities are unresolved in this legislation. HR 1904 does not even include basic conservation provisions included in the companion bill sponsored by Senator Murkowski in the Senate.”

Murkowski altered her version of the bill after hearing criticisms from Southeast Alaska.  But Young had not changed his – until Wednesday. He introduced a bloc amendment that says none of the lands Sealaska selects can be in conservation units and says they’ll be subject to state and federal permit requirements.

“Again after 40 years Sealaska is without their land entitlement, which they’ve been charged with providing for the economic and social well being of the people. Without this exchange they will be unable to do so.”

But opponents of the plan say Young is not offering nearly enough compromise. Democrats pushed their own amendments calling for no logging within 100 feet of streams and saying the harvested logs can only be milled in America, but Republicans rejected them.

Democrat Ed Markey also tried to get the lands Sealaska wants to give up, which is old growth forest, permanently protected from logging.

“Sealaska told us it qualifies for wilderness, that’s why they don’t want to log it. And so we’re doing this for a private corporation, and that’s fine. Again we’re going along with the general intent all we’re saying is the reason we’re doing it is because Sealaska says this area is too pristine to log.”

But Congressman Young didn’t like that idea one bit:

“It’s just a mischievous way to make wilderness out of lands that are not wilderness right now.”

No Democratic amendments passed, but the Sealaska bill did, 34 to 10, with some Democrats on board.

There’s no date yet set for either the Sealaska bill or the NPR-A bill to go before the full House.

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