Murkowski pushes back against federal government in speech to Alaska lawmakers

EnergyAssociated Press

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski used her speech before state lawmakers Wednesday to push back against a federal government that she says seems to want to starve the trans-Alaska pipeline system of new oil.

Murkowski, chair of the Senate energy committee and Alaska's senior senator, said she's never been a good alarmist but it has become harder for her to conclude otherwise given recent federal actions.

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She cited as examples President Barack Obama's recommendation to make oil and gas development off limits in the potentially oil-rich coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by seeking a wilderness designation, even though that plan would need congressional approval. Murkowski also cited the Obama administration's proposal to bar drilling in millions of acres of Alaska's Arctic waters.

She said the viability of a ConocoPhillips project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska was put into question by "hugely expensive" mitigation measures that Obama's administration was trying to impose on the company.

ConocoPhillips Alaska late last month said it was slowing the pace of investment on the project, calling it challenged by permitting delays, requirements and current oil prices. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management last week issued a final decision on the project, under which the company said it voluntarily agreed to contribute $8 million to a compensatory mitigation fund.

Alaska relies heavily on oil revenues to fund state government, and the trans-Alaska pipeline is its economic lifeline. Alaska changed its oil tax structure in 2013, in hopes it would lead to more production. The state currently faces projected multibillion-dollar deficits, exacerbated by the plunge in oil prices.

The state has more support in the Senate today than probably at any other point during Obama's administration, Murkowski said. Republicans took control of the Senate during last fall's elections, putting Congress in GOP hands.

Murkowski called on lawmakers to join her in pursuing every legal, legislative and public opinion strategy that they can muster to secure Alaska's future.

She said she believes there is a chance that a land exchange could be devised to transfer parts of the refuge into state control or that part of the coastal plain could be purchased. She said she would fight for the state to take the lead over activities in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and would put together an energy bill that includes provisions beneficial to Alaska.

Members of Alaska congressional delegation have introduced legislation to allow for development from the refuge's coastal plain. Murkowski and fellow Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan also have introduced legislation that would bar executive action designating national monuments on federal lands and waters without the approval of Congress and the legislatures of the affected states.

State lawmakers have met Obama's refuge proposal, which Congress would have to approve, with resolutions calling for drilling on the coastal plain. Members of Alaska congressional delegation have introduced legislation to allow for development.

State legislative leaders and Gov. Bill Walker hope to build support among other states in pushing back against areas of perceived federal overreach.

A contingent of lawmakers met this week with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell during her trip to Alaska, as did Walker, in hopes of impressing upon her the impacts that federal decisions have on Alaskans.

Walker spokeswoman Grace Jang said by text message Tuesday that Walker wants to keep open the door of communication with the federal government. She said Walker has not given up on getting some kind of concession on the refuge and therefore did not present her with an invoice for state health care and education costs, as he previously told reporters he planned to do.

Murkowski delivered her speech to a joint session of the Legislature. Such addresses are customary for Alaska's U.S. senators.