Murkowski launches big Alaska bills whose days are numbered

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (File photo by Skip Gray, 360 North)
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (File photo by Skip Gray, 360 North)

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski this morning brought some of her most controversial Alaska bills to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which she chairs. There are only a few legislative days left before Congress takes a recess for the election. The controversial bills stand almost no chance of passing in this Congress. But some, she hopes, will pack a punch anyway.

LISTEN NOW

The most ambitious of the bills Murkowski brought to the committee reads like the Alaska delegation’s master wish list, the things they’ve been trying to convince Congress to pass for decades. The bill would open part of the Arctic National Wildlife refuge to oil drilling. It would mandate lease sales in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, and off-shore. In the Tongass National Forest, it would allow new roads and carve out a new state forest. Murkowski says Alaska needs to develop these federal resources.

“Right now we’re facing pretty much a brick wall of opposition in these areas,” she said.

Conservation groups and their Senate allies sound the alarm and deploy the polar bear suits when efforts like these seem close to passage. This did not appear to be one of those times. The top Democrat on the committee, Maria Cantwell of Washington, objected, but dryly, almost parenthetically.

“I fought for many years to protect the Arctic National Wildlife refuge, the Tongass National forest and important conservation lands in Alaska which are important to all Americans,” she said.

Murkowski later told reporters that some of the provisions are intended to stake out her position, on new oil production, for instance, for this administration or the next. One of her bills calls for the Interior Secretary to develop a plan to add half a million barrels of oil per day to the trans-Alaska pipeline.

“Ok, we know that’s not something we’re going to see. It’s not going to happen within that Congress,” she said. “That is certainly telling the next administration ‘I want to see what your plan is. Here’s our plan, here.’”

The senator says other provisions are realistic before President Obama leaves office. She cited the Alaska Mental Health Trust land trade. It would allow the trust to get land in the Tongass to avoid logging near Ketchikan and Petersburg.

Murkowski saved most of her passion for the long-disputed King Cove road. It would connect King Cove to an all-weather airport at Cold Bay, but it would go through the Izembek Wildlife Refuge. Murkowski keeps count of the number of emergency medical evacuations King Cove residents have endured since Interior Secretary Sally Jewell rejected a land trade for the road in 2013. It’s 52 so far. Jewell wasn’t at the hearing, so Murkowski gave BLM Director Neil Kornze a message to deliver to the secretary and to the president.

“Under their watch, people have been living in fear, in trepditation and with pain and suffering that could have been addressed,”she said. “It’s unexcusable, and I’m not backing down on this. One way or another … the people of King Cove are going to find safety. That’s the message you can take back.”

Kornze said he would.

Murkowski says she’s sure the administration is just running out the clock so it can wash its hands of King Cove, but with her words and bills, she aims not  to let them forget it.