This man hopes to bring the gavel down on ANWR drilling

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., is likely to be chairman of House Resources if Democrats win the House in November. (Photo by Liz Ruskin)

If Democrats take control of the U.S. House in November, as many pollsters predict, the fate of some of Alaska’s biggest resource priorities could rest with someone most Alaskans have never heard of.

Listen now

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., is in line to become chairman of the House Resources Committee if the chamber switches hands. And he said Tuesday that a bill to close the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling will be at the top of his list.

If he becomes chairman, Grijalva will have grand hearing rooms available to him. He’ll be able to call formal proceedings on subjects he wants to draw attention to. But Tuesday, he made do with a medium-sized meeting room in a House office building for a forum on the Arctic Refuge.

“What’s going on in Washington right now is critically important to all of us,” Grijalva told the 50 or so people who turned out. Several Democrats from the committee were beside him. “The Arctic Refuge is something that is not only held in esteem but is a beloved designation by this … (Congress), thinking far-sighted, and it’s in jeopardy.”

Grijalva, from Tucson, is sometimes ranked the most liberal member of the House. He was the first in the House or Senate to endorse Bernie Sanders for President in 2015. Alaska Congressman Don Young often accuses Grijalva and other Democrats on the Resources Committee of just reading environmentalist talking points about Alaska. But Grijalva sees it differently. He sees championing environmental issues like the Arctic Refuge is a way of standing up against moneyed interests.

“The caribou don’t conduct a lot of fundraisers for us. And the wilderness can’t write us checks,” Grijalva said. “These are all being sacrificed to satisfy this Republican obsession with opening up every acre of public land to drilling or mining.”

This event was intended to highlight a new bill that would overturn last year’s decision to open the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge to drilling. It has zero chance of passing now, with Republicans in charge of Congress. But Grijalva says it gives drilling opponents something to organize around.

In a written statement Tuesday, Rep. Young accused sponsors of the anti-drilling bill of attempting a “land grab.” Young invited them to Alaska so they can “understand what responsible resource development in the Arctic means for Alaska instead of what the environmental lobby tells them to believe.”

Grijalva cites reports that claim the outdoors industry provides Alaskans with more jobs  than oil development does. He has never been to Alaska, his aids say.

He ended the meeting a little abruptly, with a glance at the clock.

Donetta Tritt, from Arctic Village, flew to Washington, D.C. to advocate against drilling. (Photo by Liz Ruskin)

“We have to clear out the room,” Grijalva said. “They only gave it to us until five minutes from now.”

Grijalva’s power will grow if Democrats win the House, well beyond his ability to reserve rooms.

Grijalva said Democrats are itching to hold Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to account and maybe rollback recent changes to  public lands policy. And he says one of their first bills will be one to stop development in the Arctic Refuge.

“This is something that you have to turn back,” Grijalva said. “You can’t negotiate a way out of this. You have to defeat it.”

Among the speakers at the forum was Donetta Tritt, who is Gwich’in Athabaskan. She spoke about how her people are tied to the caribou of the Arctic Refuge. Gwich’in opponents of drilling are frequent witnesses at Capitol Hill forums organized by Democrats. They don’t typically invite leaders of Alaska Native corporations, like Arctic Slope Regional Corp., who are eager for development in ANWR. Grijalva said the corporate support shouldn’t eclipse what the Gwich’in are saying.

Tritt, from Arctic Village, just met Grijalva, but she says she was impressed with how warm he was, and how intently he listened.

“At the end of the meeting, he reached out both his hands,” Tritt said. “And then just coming out here in the hallway and giving me a hug and a kiss on the cheek and saying we’re going to do everything we can to take back the House.”

Tritt said she’ll go back home and tell her people, drilling opponents, they have a friend in Washington.

And depending on what happens in November, that friend may holding a chairman’s gavel.