Murkowski lays out path on Arctic leases

  • Tuesday, November 22, 2016 10:36pm
  • News

Republicans have options to counteract the Obama administration’s move to pull Arctic waters from the federal offshore oil and gas lease plan, but they are far from immediate.

When the Interior Department released its 2017-2022 outer continental shelf, or OCS, lease plan document on Nov. 18 sans sales in Alaska’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas, the state’s leaders were instantly livid as environmental watchdogs rejoiced, tallying the news as a victory on the climate change front.

A draft version of the lease plan included one lease sale in each of the Arctic waters.

However, the release date of the plan was almost as important as what it contains. The “proposed final plan” instantly entered a 60-day congressional review period when it became public.

In the absence of procedural or technical errors in drafting the plan, it amounts to a two-month window for the Republican-controlled Congress to object and adopt a joint resolution of appeal — back to the president.

With the Nov. 18 release of the plan, the review will end in the last couple days of President Barack Obama’s term, essentially locking in the plan as final.

An exasperated Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in an interview with the Journal, soon after the plan became public, that her staff will do the requisite due diligence in reviewing the 269-page document, more as a formality than anything. Her focus is on how to best mitigate the perceived damage with a Republican president and a new Congress.

“Is (the lease plan) something that I wish we could, the first day of a new administration, the president-elect could wave a wand and make this all better, if you will? It’s not that simple; and that’s why we worked so hard to make sure the (Obama) administration did not do what they did,” Murkowski said.

She noted that it is not just Alaska’s congressional delegation and industry pushing for the leases, but also North Slope mayors and Alaska Native corporations pushing for the potential economic benefits of Arctic OCS activity, as well as military commanders touting the need for national energy security.

Hopeful the administration would take those pleas into account, Murkowski added she was particularly “ticked off” that “President Obama is telling the new administration to stand up to Russia, and then what does he do — he basically cedes leadership on Arctic energy production to the Russians. It is just incredible to think (the Russians) get the payroll; they get the jobs; they get the revenue and we’re just watching.”

As chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Murkowski’s office did not get a “heads up” call from Interior Secretary Sally Jewell or Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Director Abigail Hopper on the news.

Alaska’s senior senator has battled with Jewell, most notably on the secretary’s 2013 decision to reject construction of an access road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge.

Murkowski has said several times she regrets voting to confirm Jewell for the cabinet post.

“We actually heard of it through a press release, so I think we’ve been cut off by the Department of the Interior,” she quipped.

Murkowski also expressed frustration over one of the main justifications behind pulling the Arctic areas from the plan — a lack of industry interest — one she sees as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“It’s such a circular, hypocritical position to take that somehow or other the reason they did this was because there was lack of interest. Keep in mind that when you are exploring you’re looking beyond what happens in this five-year window, and particularly in the Arctic where development just takes so much longer than most anywhere else,” Murkowski said. “In order to attract interest in the leases themselves industry needs to know that they will be made available. It is amazing to me that they actually put that in writing, that one of the reasons is there is lack of interest.”

Shell and ConocoPhillips relinquished federal Chukchi leases last spring after the former cut its Arctic exploration program off Alaska in 2015, citing high costs and regulatory uncertainty.

Murkowski introduced legislation this summer to mandate annual lease sales in federal waters off of Alaska’s North Slope and will likely do so again, she said.

The House passed the Midnight Rules Relief Act Nov. 17, a bill aimed to give the next Congress a workaround against regulatory actions in the last 60 days of a presidency. Rep. Don Young called for the Senate to take up the “common sense proposal,” as he characterized it in a release from his office, but the odds of it moving further would not seem great at this point.

The delegation will also certainly push President-elect Donald Trump to begin reversing the plan as soon he takes office.

The five-year lease plan is also subject to annual reviews. However, changing a final plan entails its own, up to three-year, environmental review. Murkowski described that course of action as “painfully long, but it would allow for a process where we can get these Arctic leases back online.”

The legislative route would seem to be the simplest and most direct remedy for Republicans especially given they will again hold both chambers of Congress — albeit barely in the Senate — and the White House.

What could end up as a 52-seat Republican majority in the Senate after a runoff election in Louisiana still leaves Democrats holding the ability to filibuster. And it’s unlikely they will go quietly on Arctic environmental issues that have become a hot political topic and will be a part of Obama’s legacy.

“Nuking” the filibuster has been a topic among conservative circles, but Sen. Dan Sullivan’s Chief of Staff Joe Balash has said he does not see that happening in the new Congress.

Murkowski said the need for Arctic energy activity will still be imperative for the delegation to impart on the new administration’s leadership team. She is going to use her committee position to advance that message to upcoming Interior agency appointees and affirm their commitment on the issue for confirmation support, she said.

While much of the focus on the federal offshore oil and gas leasing plan has centered on the Arctic, Alaska was not completely cut out. The plan calls for a single Cook Inlet sale in 2021.

The vast majority of Cook Inlet is state waters, but the southern portion of the Inlet is under federal jurisdiction. The lease plan states that ample considerations were given to protect the endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale population and other marine wildlife in selecting the leasable areas, and it notes the significant amount of existing oil and gas infrastructure already in place to support potential exploration without significant additional development.

Bob Shavelson, executive director of the Alaska-based environmental group Cook Inletkeeper, contends a lack of interest in the Southcentral basin has been proven over the prior three federal sales that have garnered no industry bids.

“We’re wasting tens of millions of dollars to study and hold lease sales in Cook Inlet, when instead we should be exploring renewable energy options in federal waters,” Shavelson said in a formal statement.

He noted the region’s extremely high tides as a prime energy source that continues to go unharnessed.

Murkowski was more upbeat about her omnibus energy reform bill that is in a House-Senate conference committee, the final negotiations before heading to the president’s desk.

“We’re in the process now of making offers and counteroffers (between House and Senate conferees) and so my hope is that in these next few days we’ll make some good progress and be able to take this up when we get back from Thanksgiving,” she said.

There have been roughly 75 meetings over less than three months on the Energy Policy Modernization Act, her signature piece of legislation — also supported by ranking Energy and Natural Resources Democrat from Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell — Murkowski noted.

No one on the conference committee is interested in pushing a bill that is likely to get vetoed and nothing in the Senate version has been “flagged as veto bait,” she described.

Murkowski pushed back against some Republican interests in Washington, D.C., that have suggested since the election the party should focus on pushing a new energy bill through the next Congress after gaining control of the White House.

She emphasized that moving contentious legislation through the Senate will not be easier next year, as the 60-vote majority will still be needed.

“I think it’s very important to recognize that we’ve not only spent two years building a product that has been very broadly supported, but it’s a longer story because it’s been nine years now since we’ve done any energy reform, so wrapping this up right now I think is very important,” Murkowski said. “I am continuing to push and be optimistic and hopefully will have more to report when I’m back into session after the Thanksgiving break, but this is too important to Alaska; I think it’s too important to the country and we’ve done it the right way and I think that needs to be recognized as well.”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at

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