The ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee is demanding an investigation into the Interior Department's alleged threats against energy projects in Alaska—apparently made in retribution for Sen. Lisa Murkowski's (R-Alaska) vote against the Republican healthcare plan.
In a move that Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) called "troubling," Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called both Sullivan and Murkowski on Wednesday, the day after the Senate voted to debate the plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Murkowski was one of two Republican senators who joined all 48 Democrats in casting "no" votes on the motion to proceed to debate; the plan to repeal the ACA would cut $700 billion from Medicaid and eliminate health coverage for at least 22 million Americans over the next decade.
Speaking to the Alaska Dispatch News, Sullivan said the phone call left him concerned that energy projects in the state, where 61 percent of the land is controlled by the federal government, could be in danger. "There's a lot of enthusiasm [in Alaska] for the policies that Secretary Zinke and the president have been talking about with regard to our economy," he said. "But the message was pretty clear."
"Secretary Zinke's willingness to deliver these threats speaks volumes about his ethical standards and demonstrates that Interior's policy positions are up for political grabs, rather than based on science or the public interest." —Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.)
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) called Zinke's action "political blackmail" and likened it to the type of approach that might be taken by the Kremlin.
"Running a department of the federal government means you serve the American people as a protector of their rights and freedoms," Grijalva said Thursday. "It doesn’t mean you serve the president as a bag man for his political vendettas...Secretary Zinke's willingness to deliver these threats speaks volumes about his ethical standards and demonstrates that Interior's policy positions are up for political grabs, rather than based on science or the public interest."
As in other states, the Interior Department is currently reviewing a number of energy and other infrastructure projects in Alaska that depend on federal approval or funding.
The Center for Western Priorities, which describes itself as "a nonpartisan conservation and advocacy organization" aimed at protecting public lands—but also supports increased oil and gas drilling—issued a statement blasting what they perceived as a threat by Zinke against future fossil fuel projects in the state.
Ryan Zinke is revealing himself as Trump’s hitman. He’s now threatening to hold public lands and energy policy hostage over a health care bill. This is the U.S. government, not the Corleone family. Congress and the administration should discuss America's energy and lands policy on the merits, without mob-inspired threats from the Department of the Interior and the White House.
Shortly after Zinke's phone call to Murkowski on Wednesday, as the chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Murkowski postponed votes on six Trump administration nominees, including three who would be appointed to the Interior Department.