JUNEAU — A contingent of state representatives including House Speaker Mike Chenault are missing several days of the legislative session next week to head to Washington, D.C., and make a pitch — once again — for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
A measure to allow drilling on the Arctic coastal plain is expected to come for a vote in the U.S. House next week. It's part of a trio of pro-oil-production measures tacked onto the U.S. House transportation funding bill.
"It's our time," said state Rep. Anna Fairclough, a Republican from Eagle River and one of five going next week.
Arctic Power, a private group with a Washington lobbying arm and state funds, has been working since 1992 to open the refuge coastal plain to drilling. The group, which got $160,000 this budget year from the Legislature to lobby on ANWR, asked the Alaska lawmakers to come just as the latest measure is about to hit the House floor, Chenault said Thursday.
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"Not only for Alaska's security, but also for national security, we ought to be opening it up and drilling on our own leases," said Chenault, a Republican from Nikiski.
Besides Chenault and Fairclough, the group includes Republicans Dan Saddler of Eagle River and Lance Pruitt of Anchorage, as well as Reggie Joule, a Kotzebue Democrat who is part of the Republican-controlled majority coalition of the Alaska House.
Two other House member -- Reps. Charisse Millett of Anchorage and Kyle Johansen of Ketchikan -- were excused for a similar trip, Chenault said. They are both Republicans but in 2010 walked out of the organization that runs the House over a dispute rooted in their personal relationship. They paid for their trip out of state funds in their individual legislative office accounts, not the general legislative travel fund, according to the Legislative Affairs Agency.
So far, the only travel bills submitted are for airfare, according to the agency. Millett and Johansen had the cheapest tickets, $1,052 each. Fairclough's was almost $1,500, according to the agency. Chenault hasn't submitted his yet.
On Thursday, Millett sent out a press release calling her trip a success but declined to be interviewed about it. In her written statement, she said she met with Doc Hastings, the chairman of the House Resources Committee. Hastings, a Republican from Washington state, needs no lobbying to convince him to vote to open the refuge. He worked with U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, to get the current measure through his committee. Millett also said she met with a dozen undecided U.S. representatives but didn't name them.
Johansen said he couldn't spare the time to discuss the matter. In a brief telephone conversation Thursday, he said he was meeting with constituents in two minutes and was busy prepping. Moments later, he showed up in Millett's office then walked out in the presence of a Daily News reporter.
The 90-day legislative session -- with big items on the table including oil taxes, funding for Anchorage's troubled port project, and a new gas pipeline measure sponsored by Chenault -- will be a third over next week. The ANWR contingent will be missing at least three full days. Some legislators will be going to Washington in March for the annual energy conference.
Chenault said he's leaving Sunday evening and plans to be back in Juneau on Thursday morning. The most important bills don't come up on the floor for debate and action until much later in the session, he said.
Chenault acknowledged the pitch may be familiar to some. Boosters say if oil can be produced from the small section of the refuge set aside for possible oil development, jobs will be created, the country can lessen at least some of its reliance on foreign oil and even that the price of gas at the pump will drop.
"I don't know if there's anything new, because it's such an old battle," Chenault said. "But you have new players in the game every year."
Fairclough said they are targeting those newcomers. Among the House members they hope to sit down with are Democrats Ted Deutch from South Florida, Jim Himes from Connecticut, and Larry Kissell from North Carolina.
"We're focusing on members who haven't seen this before. We are focusing on members who maybe are freshman or who haven't had to deal with the ANWR situation. They're from both sides of the aisle," said Pruitt, another of the Alaska state representatives headed to Washington.
That's a good strategy, said U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska. "Over half the Senate has switched hands in the last five years," Begich said Thursday. The House is full of new faces, too.
Many want to learn about oil development in Alaska, and even old-timers can be swayed, he said. He said he's wedged himself into weekly energy meetings led by powerful Democratic senators including John Kerry, D-Mass., who heads the Foreign Relations Committee, and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chair of the Environment and Public Works panel.
Begich said he tells his colleagues that Alaskans want to protect the environment, not destroy it, and that oil development can be done safely. The message resonates, Begich said.
"There are some windows that are opening up in the Democratic caucus," Begich said. Some said they had never been approached before.
Saddler was picked for the trip because he carried a resolution supporting drilling in ANWR before the National Conference of State Legislatures at its fall forum in Tampa, Fla., Chenault said. It passed overwhelmingly -- making drilling in ANWR the official policy of the conference. That will help in D.C., the speaker said.
Saddler, Pruitt and Fairclough all mentioned that a large percentage of Alaskans -- 78 percent, according to a Dittman poll -- support drilling in ANWR. That's one of Arctic Power's talking points.
Pruitt, at 30 the youngest member of Alaska's Legislature, said he also hopes to show that drilling is not just something pushed by the old guard but is backed by his generation.
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