Alaska's congressional delegation engaged in an old-fashioned bashing of federal agencies at the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce May 17 luncheon in a rare venue with both U.S. senators and the state's lone congressman at the head table.
Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich, and Rep. Don Young were in Alaska for Walter J. Hickel's funeral held that evening and took advantage of the chamber's forum to address local business and community leaders.
Murkowski, a Republican, ticked through a list of what she said were horrors that federal agencies under the Democratic administration are visiting on Alaska, beginning with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study of expanding wilderness in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's proposed rule to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the U.S. Clean Air Act, extending new rules to remove lead paint in old houses and restrictions on use of leaded fuel in aircraft.
Begich, a Democrat, was deft in his remarks, which followed Murkowski, having to somewhat defend policies of a Democratic president and Congress. He agreed with Murkowski on expanding wilderness and EPA actions, but pointed out several gains for Alaska so far under the Obama admininistration.
Young was in typical form, blunt and plain-spoken. He focused his remarks on criticism of federal agencies taking action through regulations that are not sanctioned by laws passed by Congress.
"This is unconstitutional. We should just say no," Young said.
Young said he will introduce a bill soon to take polar bears off the endangered species list. He doesn't expect it to pass but wants to use it as a vehicle to foster discussion of questions on the science behind the government's decision to list polar bears as endangered.
Murkowski said her remarks could be labeled "Washington's assault on Alaska" and led off with a blast at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study of enlarging the wilderness lands within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to possibly include ANWR's coastal plain, which has oil and gas potential.
"The 'no more' clause of the Alaska National Interest Lands Act of 1980 is clear that any recommendation for more wildnerness in Alaska can come only in the eight years following passage of the act," Murkowski said. "It is now more than 20 years since ANILCA, so the opportunities for this administration to propose more wilderness is way past."
The "no more" clause also bars the government from even studying a wilderness designation of more than 5,000 acres without congressional approval, Murkowski said.
"We're not sure the coastal plain would even qualify as wilderness given the history of human use of the area, from reindeer herding to construction of the DEWline radar stations during the Cold War," she said.
The senator said the government was short-sighted to cut off an onshore region with the potential of supplying 16 billion barrels.
Murkowski assaulted the EPA for its proposed regulations banning aviation fuel with lead, which she said could ground 30 percent of the aircraft on which rural Alaska depends. She also knocked pending requirements for lead-based paint to be removed from older buildings.
"I'm told that could add 10 percent to the cost of major remodels, with a typical cost of $5,000 for a paint removal job. There's also the issue of finding enough specialists for the work," Murkowski said.
Begich was equally critical of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study of ANWR wilderness and said he was particularly vexed at the $1.5 million cost of the study when the Interior Department, the parent agency for Fish and Wildlife, came to him recently complaining that it didn't have the funds to finish surveys of federal lands selected by Alaska Native regional corporations.
That said, Begich pointed out some progress in the Obama administration and the Democrat-controlled Congress being made on long-stalled Alaska issues.
The Interior Department and the EPA have given approvals for Shell to drill in federal offshore waters, he said, although the department has also asked the company to do a new review of its safety procedures.
Also, the University of Alaska has approvals for funding a new fisheries research vessel after 37 years, a major accomplishment. The Indian Health Service is finally up for reauthorization, after 17 years. The new climate change bill introduced by Sens. John Kerry and Joe Lieberman also has a provision allowing coastal states like Alaska to receive a share of federal royalties from offshore production, Begich said.
"There is a lot of work yet to do on the Kerry-Lieberman bill, and even with all the emotion being generated over the Gulf oil spill, we still have no comprehensive national energy plan," Begich said. "We're in a period where emotions are driving policy. We'll learn what went wrong in that accident but we've got to recognize that the outer continental shelf has got to be part of any comprehensive energy plan. No one disagrees with this. The OCS is not going to go away."
Washington becomes a kind of self-contained unit when the emotions run high, and Begich said he is attempting to inject some reason into the debate over offshore policy.
"We already depend on foreign nations for almost three-quarters of our oil and we have a responsibility to develop some of our own resources," he said.
Begich was asked if he supported Murkowski's effort to deny authority to the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.
"We're on the same page," in terms of opposing the initiative, but he hasn't signed on as a supporter of the effort.
"There's no doubt the EPA is overstepping its authority, but the end goal is adoption of a workable climate change bill," Begich said.
The senator said he has written a letter to the EPA and has received a reply, but prefers making changes to the Kerry-Lieberman bill, taking away EPA's reason for pushing the rule.
Murkowski said she prefers to just take the option of the rule away from the EPA now. There are many industrial facilities in Alaska that would be immediately affected if the agency proceeds, including refineries and power plants, she said.
Young said he hopes to stir a dialogue in Congress over the fact that the United States isn't a producer of goods and is increasingly reliant on imports for basic needs, from energy to food.
"We've spent $12.5 trillion over the last 20 years to import oil. That happens to be about the amount of our national debt. We're just sending dollars abroad," when we import goods we should be making here, Young said.