Senators using budget to put heat on administration, EPA

  • By ELWOOD BREHMER
  • Sunday, July 5, 2015 11:14pm
  • News

Alaska’s senators outlined their plans to continue to fight on resource and environment issues on which they say the Obama administration is overstepping its boundaries at the 40th annual Resource Development Council for Alaska meeting June 30.

Sen. Dan Sullivan said Alaskans and the state’s congressional delegation need to “keep making and winning arguments for responsible resource development.”

“I think it’s safe to say most people in Alaska are supportive of responsible resource development,” Sullivan said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, along with Sullivan, noted how their positions on Senate committees, combined with Rep. Don Young’s seniority in the House, give the state a strong position on energy and environment issues.

Sullivan chairs the Fisheries, Water and Wildlife Subcommittee of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

Murkowski heads the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and the Environment.

“We hold, not me, we the state of Alaska hold the purse strings for many of the (Interior Department) agencies through the chairmanship that I have on the Appropriations Subcommittee,” Murkowski said in her remarks to RDC members.

There are 30 senators that sit on the Appropriations Committee, but “the gavel is in Alaska’s hands,” in terms of Interior Department and environment spending, she said.

“We have an opportunity to help shape the direction where many of these agencies are going,” Murkowski said.

The Interior Appropriations Subcommittee passed its $31 billion budget June 16, which is about $2.2 billion less than the president’s request.

When the full Appropriations Committee passed the budget June 18, Murkowski said it was the first Interior and Environment budget bill to move through the standard committee process in six years.

“We have moved through this appropriations process (in the past) kind of in a closed door situation where you advance the authorities through an omnibus appropriations bill,” Murkowski said. “Not a good way to operate.”

Now that Republicans have control of Congress they are pushing back hard on the administration’s environmental policies of the EPA under the Obama administration.

The battle in recent days has been over the Environmental Protection Agency’s rule known as the Waters of the U.S., that would delineate which water bodies the agency has jurisdiction over under the Clean Water Act. If the EPA has control over a given wetland, lake, river or stream, a Clean Water Act Section 404 permit is required to alter it or an adjacent parcel of land for development.

Republicans continue to say the “WOTUS” rule is a power grab by the Obama administration. Legislation to essentially kill the rule has passed the House and is pending in the Senate. Sullivan said the bill has bipartisan support on the Senate floor and could garner 60 votes.

The State of Alaska joined a lawsuit with 11 other states against the EPA challenging the Waters of the U.S. rule June 29. Alaska’s complaints are with how the rule could impact states’ sovereignty and with how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issues Section 404 permits, and the EPA consulted with state in developing the rule, according to a release from Gov. Bill Walker’s office.

“This rule came about under a muddled process which failed to consider information specific to Alaska. By overlooking our state’s unique circumstances, the rulemaking fails to disclose the regulatory and economic impacts it will have on Alaska, which is required by law,” Walker said in a formal statement.

The language in the Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, regarding EPA’s jurisdiction is vague and the agency says the WOTUS rule would simply clarify in regulation what it has been doing all along.

Murkowski and Sullivan contend the rule would further restrict where development can occur and put additional cost and permitting burden on already strictly monitored projects in the state.

Republicans on the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee blocked EPA from funding implementation of WOTUS in the budget package passed out of the subcommittee.

In total, the budget cut EPA’s funding by $540 million, or 7 percent, from the current fiscal year.

Murkowski also said she is pushing for a state option to the EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan, which would put strict limits on carbon dioxide emissions from large power plants and essentially phase out coal-fired plants.

She said the proposal could make sense for states that can draw from many power sources on large interstate grids, but could drive the price of power higher in Alaska where that option doesn’t exist.

Murkowski vowed to move the country’s first wholesale energy policy legislation since 2007, as chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“2007 is a long time to stay still from a policy perspective while at the same time what’s happening across the country, what’s happening in the state is galloping forward,” she said.

Since the last major piece of federal energy legislation, hydraulic fracking has exploded shale oil and natural gas production across the country and renewable energy development, particularly wind and solar, has increased dramatically.

In Alaska, Shell has pushed to explore offshore Arctic leases and ConocoPhillips has reached the verge of the first oil production from the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

Also, an emphasis on small-scale efficient and renewable energy projects in remote villages across the state emerged as oil prices escalated. While much of that work has been done with state money, federal Department of Energy grants have buoyed several successful projects.

In a press briefing after her speech, Murkowski said she is working to blend three Outer Continental Shelf, or OCS, oil and gas production revenue sharing bills that are currently in front of her committee.

“This activity may be out in federal waters but the impact is to those communities, those state that host the activity offshore,” she said.

Any legislation to split federal revenue with states and local governments will need 60 votes in the Senate. Murkowski said her bill has support from Gulf and mid-Atlantic legislators whose states could also benefit from OCS revenue sharing.

The exact details on how the revenue might be divided are still being worked through, according to Murkowski.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

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