Anchorage Daily News: Murkowski presses Interior secretary to advance drilling in Cook Inlet and accelerate wildfire mitigation

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski urged the Interior Department to advance drilling in Alaska’s Cook Inlet and distribute wildfire prevention funding during a Senate hearing Wednesday.

Murkowski, a Republican, questioned Interior Secretary Deb Haaland about the department’s proposed five-year offshore drilling plan, which includes 10 lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico and another in Cook Inlet. The Biden administration has made clear that it may not move forward with any of the proposed sales.

“I feel strongly when it comes to the five-year plan that the administration has to move and move quickly to finalize a plan that keeps at least the current acreage available for offshore leasing, including in my state,” Murkowski told Haaland in her opening remarks.

“I think that that’s unacceptable for the department to even consider a five-year plan that would include no lease sales, I just don’t think it makes sense,” she added.

Murkowski raised concerns that the administration would not follow through on the lease sale, especially after the Interior Department canceled a different sale in Cook Inlet in May.

“I think there was a lot of concern in May when the department canceled lease sale 258 citing lack of industry interest, and I can say with real certainty that was not the case,” Murkowski said.

Haaland responded that although the Oil and Gas Association did support the May sale, not enough companies expressed interest at the time.

“For us to move that forward,” Haaland said, “we would have had to have interest from the actual companies who would be bidding on the leases.”

Murkowski likened the situation to a chicken and an egg, arguing that without the sale, oil companies didn’t have enough opportunity to show interest because of the lease’s cancellation. 

Murkowski is the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, which hosted the hearing. The Wednesday event allowed senators to consider the Interior Department’s $18.1 billion proposed fiscal year 2023 budget.

Murkowski and other senators from the West, including Democrats Dianne Feinstein of California and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, highlighted their states’ need for comprehensive investment in wildfire management and prevention. The proposed budget includes $1.5 billion for the Interior Department’s Wildland Fire Management program.

In Alaska this year, over 500 wildfires have burned more than 2.8 million acres of land, much of which is public and falls under the department’s purview. A June bipartisan infrastructure law included over $1.4 billion in funding for wildland fire management over the next five years.

“How soon do you expect to see that funding get out the door?” Murkowski asked.

Haaland said the wildland fire management program allocated $407 million this year and that the U.S. Forest Service announced $120 million to be paid as supplemental salary payments to firefighters.

“Some programs will take longer to implement fully because of upfront planning and other requirements,” Haaland said.

When Murkowski pressed further, Haaland said she would follow up with the senator’s office.

At the hearing, Murkowski also expressed her frustration with high gas prices in Alaska, which she blamed on domestic oil supply. The senator called for increased mineral development in Alaska but praised the Interior Department’s steps toward approving an oil project in the North Slope and its commitment to providing resources to tribal communities. Murkowski also thanked Haaland for visiting Alaska in May.

Murkowski and Haaland found common ground in improving Bureau of Land Management standards. Alaska regulators have accused BLM of falling short of state standards in the bureau’s efforts to clean up and plug legacy wells, 136 oil and gas wells drilled by the U.S. Navy and U.S. Geological Survey beginning in the 1940s.

“I need you to commit to me to have BLM review the remediation and plugging standards that are used by the state of Alaska to see what improvements can be made to BLM’s own standards,” Murkowski said.

“Absolutely. We are happy to work with you on all of that,” Haaland responded.

By:  Riley Rogerson
Source: Anchorage Daily News