The 90-day legislative session is now more than halfway done, and as usual, the Alaska State Legislature is coming up for air during the coming week as many of its members leave town.
The main event of the week is the Energy Council’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., which is drawing at least one-third of the state’s legislators — including Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, who is chairman of the Energy Council this year.
“Having an Alaska chairman gives the opportunity for Alaska to have a focus on the Arctic,” said Stedman on Thursday. “It’s amazing, to me, how little interest that the continental (United States) has in the Arctic in general. So it helps focus that, because you know, it’s a dynamic environment up there that’s changing as fast — faster than a lot of the scientists had anticipated.”
Stedman added, “I’m going to be pounding on the Arctic in every meeting.”
The Energy Council is a legislative organization that brings together lawmakers from energy-producing states and provinces in the U.S. and Canada, as well as the oil-rich South American country of Venezuela.
Stedman called the Energy Council “a significant player” in energy policy.
“The Energy Council doesn’t have the ability to set the U.S. energy policy, but the Energy Council is a voice in setting that policy in Washington, trying to steer that discussion,” Stedman said. “Because we are the representatives from the energy-producing states and provinces.”
House Majority Leader Lance Pruitt, R-Anchorage, spoke briefly about the Energy Council meeting during a House majority press conference Friday morning.
“It gives an opportunity for those individuals to go back and speak for Alaska and actually learn a lot,” said Pruitt. “It’s an incredible experience of learning, as well as being able to interact with people on the Hill.”
Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, volunteered her thoughts on the meeting Friday as well. She said she enjoys going to the Energy Council summit in Washington, D.C., particularly because of the opportunity legislators get to meet with officials from the federal government.
“We have such a presence,” Gardner said. “We fan out. Right now, my office and two other offices are working on white papers that we will take, and we’re setting up meetings all over the city for Thursday to talk about (offshore energy production) revenue-sharing from federal waters. We’re talking about exporting Alaska’s (liquefied natural) gas and pushing for that, even as the nation is awash and can’t use our gas.”
Gardner also said she wants to use the opportunity to talk to her fellow Democrats in Washington, D.C., about opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, a cause Gardner supports.
“We think it’s very important for Democrats to carry the message to other Democrats that Alaskans broadly support it,” said Gardner.
Freshman Rep. Doug Isaacson, R-North Pole, a House Energy Council co-chairman, said he is looking forward to making his first trip to the Energy Council meeting.
“From my perspective, I find it very valuable, especially when referencing how many new members we have on our Energy Committee, for example. Out of seven members, five of them are brand new,” Isaacson said during the press conference. “Finding out what our peers are doing elsewhere is extremely helpful.”
For his part, Stedman said Thursday, “To keep up on the trends within the energy industry, our market positioning of these energy resources, you can’t do it by staying in Juneau.”
“A lot of the meetings are still being set up, but the schedules are packed,” said Isaacson. “It’s not a holiday for me.”
According to a survey of all 60 legislators’ offices Friday, 21 lawmakers from the House and the Senate combined are attending Energy Council, while 39 will not attend.
At least one of the 39 legislators who is not attending the Energy Council meeting, Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, is traveling to Washington, D.C., on other business and plans to attend certain meetings with the Energy Council delegation, his staff said.
All but one legislator from the House Energy Committee is going to the Energy Council meeting, according to their respective offices.
Sitting in at a desk covered with uneven stacks of documents, with more papers sitting on a nearby bookshelf and lying on the carpet around his chair, Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, said he is not going to Washington, D.C., because he has work to catch up on in Juneau.
“I feel like there’s a huge amount that I need to do here to get ready for the second half of the session,” said Josephson, the only minority caucus member among three Democrats who sit on the House Energy Committee. “I’d be happy to go to Energy Council. I don’t object to others going.”
No members of the Juneau delegation are attending the meeting, either.
Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, said she believes it is “important” for Alaska’s delegation to address Alaska’s issues in Washington, D.C., but she said she thinks other legislators have it covered.
“I think 20 or 25 members of the Legislature is more than adequate for that particular event,” Muñoz said.
Asked whether she thinks fewer legislators should attend the annual meeting, Muñoz laughed.
“Just let’s say I’m one of the more conservative members of the Legislature when it comes to spending the state’s money,” said Muñoz.
According to an official with the Legislative Affairs Agency, the state reimburses legislators for the cost of transportation and lodging for the Energy Council trip. It does not furnish a per diem.
The Federal Energy and Environmental Matters Conference, as the Energy Council meeting is formally known, will run from this coming Thursday until next Sunday.
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.