Jewell, Murkowski square off

The Interior Secretary and Alaskan Senator spar over money and the environment.


In January, when the Obama administration announced plans to put billions of barrels of oil off-limits by managing much of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness, Alaskan Sen. Lisa Murkowski did not mince words. 

“I have tried to work with this administrationeven though they’ve made it extremely difficult every step of the waybut those days are now officially over,” she said in a statement. “We are left with no choice but to hit back as hard as we can.”

Though the Obama administration has ramped up federal onshore oil production by 30 percent since 2008 and also recently approved the first-ever lease in National Petroleum Reserve - Alaska, the trade-off isn’t worth it for Murkowski. A lifelong Alaskan and staunch supporter of the oil industry, Murkowski has lately emerged as one of the most powerful figures in American energy policy. The Republican takeover of Congress has put her in the position of chairing both the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and the subcommittee that sets the budget for the Interior Department. At the subcommittee’s first budget hearing last week, the senior senator made it clear that she plans to use her gavels to steer America’s energy future away from an administration she believes is thwarting the development of domestic oil and gas.

Senator Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. TalkRadioNews/USDA.
Standing in her way is Sally Jewell, the mountain-climbing, fleece-wearing former executive of REI whom President Obama appointed to lead the Interior Department in 2013. Jewell, who previously worked as an oil engineer for Mobil, is by no means opposed to drilling, but she’s also a public lands advocate who favors a fairly cautious approach. Murkowski, meanwhile, believes that any energy development—renewables, oil, gas, whatever—ought to proceed unimpeded. The rift between the two women has grown so pernicious it’s now spilling into policymaking, with the potential to affect public land management across the West. And not three months into a new GOP-dominated legislative session, it’s unclear how far either is willing to go. 

Things first came to a head not long after Jewell’s appointment in 2013, over a seemingly insignificant road to the Alaskan village of King Cove. Murkowski says the road would provide residents with medical access that could save lives. Jewell, who’s rejected the road, counters that it would compromise the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. So last month, Murkowski kicked off an Energy Committee hearing by asking Jewell a pointed question: “Do you know when King Cove saw its most recent Medevac?”

Jewell — who oversees about a fifth of all land in the United States — did not. Murkowski was disgusted. Though she remained unfailingly polite through the remainder of the 150-minute meeting, the senator had laid her trap: Shortly after, her office ran a press release accusing Jewell of not giving a hoot about the health and safety of Alaskans. The criticism was ostensibly about a 10-mile strip of gravel, but it was emblematic of a much larger divide. 

The March 4 Interior budget hearing that Murkowski oversaw added more fuel for the fire. At the outset, the senator—with perfectly coiffed hair and arched eyebrows—informed Jewell that her $12.1 billion budget (an 11 percent increase over last year) “amounts to wishful thinking, not responsible governance.” The secretary’s approach, she went on, “conveniently avoids the tough choices that must be made” and introduces “a host of new fees and royalty rate increases on energy producers (who) are already fleeing our public lands because of regulatory headaches and permitting delays.” 

Jewell — who has an enviable knack for staying calm in the face of biting criticism — shot back that the fees are necessary for her department to do its job. Interior agencies oversee more than 100,000 wells on public lands, she said, and don’t even have the resources to properly inspect those. The fees Jewell hopes to impose on on-shore oil and gas producers are “modest” and will improve safety and environmental oversight. 

Jewell also wants to offset the impact of energy development by asking Conoco-Phillips to pony up extra money to mitigate the effects of drilling on subsistence villages in Alaska, for example, and by buying conservation easements for desert tortoise displaced by solar farms in Southern California. “Mitigation is not specific to oil and gas,” she told Murkowski with veiled exasperation. “And it’s certainly not specific to (Alaska).” 

While Murkowski maintained a barbed cordiality toward Jewell, her promise to hit back as hard as she can has been increasingly evident. The senator has called Jewell’s actions in the Arctic “a stunning attack on our sovereignty” and has warned Western lawmakers to be on the alert for similar restrictions in their own states. 

Perhaps most significantly, though, she’s also threatened to undermine Jewell’s plans by cutting the Interior budget, a move that Jewell says would cost federal employees in Alaska their jobs and impact the management of national parks. How that would improve Murkowski’s state economy isn’t clear, but if the recent animosity is any indication, the chairwoman is willing to take strong measures to weaken her rival’s grip on public lands across the West. 

Krista Langlois is a correspondent at High Country News. 

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