Jewell, Murkowski face off in high-stakes budget hearing

By Phil Taylor | 02/24/2015 01:00 PM EST

Republican senators delivered a full-throated attack this morning against the Obama administration’s energy and natural resources policies, accusing the Interior Department of ignoring Alaskans, Gulf Coast residents and the goal of the U.S. attaining energy independence.

The hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee marked the first of a handful of trips Interior Secretary Sally Jewell will make to Capitol Hill in the coming months to defend the agency’s $13.2 billion budget before a hostile, GOP-controlled Congress.

Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) accused Jewell of "waging an unprecedented attack" on Alaska’s ability to bring energy resources to market, and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said Jewell and President Obama appear aloof to Louisiana’s residents hammered by the erosion of coastlines.


Jewell found an ally in ranking member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who called her budget "a balanced and forward-leaning proposal that creates jobs and long-term economic opportunity." Cantwell also praised Obama and Jewell’s decision to recommend new wilderness in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Cantwell noted the challenges of running an Interior agency tasked with both preserving and exploiting the nation’s natural resources.

"You have a very tough day job," Cantwell said.

This morning was no exception, as Jewell faced Republican fire on a laundry list of Obama policy initiatives, including Bureau of Land Management efforts to regulate hydraulic fracturing and the venting and flaring of natural gas; the Fish and Wildlife Service’s pending decision on whether the greater sage grouse deserves protections under the Endangered Species Act; and the National Park Service’s work to award contracts to run park lodges, campgrounds and other visitor services.

Murkowski’s attack was among the most pointed — and poignant given her outsize influence over Interior as chairwoman of the panel that writes the agency’s annual budget.

"I don’t want to make this personal, but the decisions from Interior have lacked balance," Murkowski said in her opening statement. "You’re depriving us of jobs, revenue, security and prosperity."

Murkowski’s ire stems from Jewell’s decision in December 2013 to reject a gravel road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to improve emergency egress for residents of King Cove, Obama’s decision last month to propose permanently banning oil drilling in the ANWR’s oil-rich coastal plain, and the president’s decision to withdraw some 10 million acres of Arctic Ocean waters from future oil and gas leasing.

Jewell defended her agency’s actions, noting that BLM had made 72 percent of the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska (NPR-A) available for oil leasing and permitted ConocoPhillips Co. to initiate oil production in the reserve, moves aimed at shoring up the depleted Trans-Alaska Pipeline System.

She added that the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is proposing making 90 percent of the undiscovered oil resources in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas available to leasing, while setting aside areas important to Alaska Native whale hunters.

She also noted that Interior is working with the Army Corps of Engineers to explore alternatives to a road through Izembek to improve public safety in King Cove, including the use of helicopters or boats to cross a shorter segment of King Cove to reach an all-weather airport at Cold Bay.

"This is not a unique situation," Jewell said of King Cove’s isolation from medical facilities. "There are many villages that struggle with medical evacuations."

But Murkowski noted that few remote Alaskan communities are as close to a major airport as King Cove.

Western lawmakers should be on alert for land restrictions in their own states, Murkowski said.

"I think what we’re seeing in Alaska is a warning for those in the West," Murkowski said.

Cassidy blasted the Obama budget for proposing to divert more than $3 billion in future oil and gas revenues destined for four Gulf Coast states to be used for national conservation and public lands priorities. In order for Louisiana to continue providing the infrastructure necessary to support offshore oil and gas drilling, it needs the oil and gas revenues it was promised in a 2006 law to help rebuild its eroding coastline, he said.

"This is an environmental atrocity," he said. "Why should these families think [Obama] cares about them?"

Jewell said revenues from the outer continental shelf should benefit all Americans. She noted that Gulf Coast states should receive billions of dollars for restoration as a result of the BP PLC oil spill in 2010.

Cantwell praised Jewell’s budget for investing heavily in the Land and Water Conservation Fund and for proposing major boosts in discretionary and mandatory funding for NPS as it approaches its centennial.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) also expressed support for a provision within the Park Service budget that seeks private-sector support, with federal matching dollars, for maintenance backlog projects.