Reading Murkowski’s tea leaves

As chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, the senator from Alaska holds much sway over Western issues


Chairman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, gavels in a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee markup as John Barrasso, R-Wyo., looks on.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski last week opened her first legislative meeting as chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, using talks on the Keystone XL pipeline to hint at a broader agenda. 

The statement helps inaugurate the impending political season, with an incoming Congress controlled by Republicans, many of whom aim to upset President Obama’s climate and environment agendas. The Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which legislates energy development, mining, public lands, water and other resources, is a key front where that fight could take place, especially where Western lands are concerned, and so Murkowski’s comments are worth reading for the upcoming season.

Putting Keystone XL aside, Murkowski, a longtime member of the committee who is considered one of the more progressive Republicans in Congress, told a Jan. 8 business meeting that she sees an opportunity “to embrace all aspects of the energy sector,” including nuclear waste disposal, efficient energy infrastructure and grid security.

The statement was a nod to a larger project for Murkowski, who wants a comprehensive update to the nation’s energy policy, something that hasn’t happened since 2007.

Much of her thinking on energy can be found in a 2013 position paper, “Energy 20/20: A Vision for America’s Energy Future.” It’s a huge document, with an overall message to push for an energy mix that includes both hydrocarbons and renewables, and seeks greater development of U.S. resources—from oil shale to fracking to geothermal energy. The goal is to have energy independence by the year 2020, a different kind of goal than, say, reduced carbon emissions.

For Western states, that could mean Murkowski will push for deregulation, more fracking, more drilling—including offshore and in pristine parts of Alaska—and an attempt to cut through red tape. It could mean more hydropower, more nuclear and, according to Murkowski, a nuanced view of “clean” energy. 

“Too often, ‘clean’ is treated as an absolute, but it is better regarded as a comparison,” Murkowski wrote in the paper. “A better definition of clean is: ‘less intensive in global lifecycle impacts on human health and the environment than its likeliest alternative.”

Most of Murkowski’s Jan. 8 remarks had to do with this energy agenda.  But also embedded in the statement was a hint at her attitude toward federal public lands. “It isn’t just natural resources that we deal with,” she told the meeting. “The public lands piece is huge. Especially for those of us in the West.” 

Whether or not she was pointing toward a policy is less clear than with her energy statements, but that she mentioned the public lands at all is pretty interesting, because Murkowski, now in a position of power over Western issues, has shown at least some support for the movement to have federal lands transferred to the states.

In “Energy 20/20,” she noted federal lands “now heavily restricted by regulation… which has caused significant harm to many rural communities.” Invoking some of the same rhetoric as the pro-transfer camp, Murkowski wrote: “At the same time, many of these communities are watching forests on public lands be destroyed by wildfires, insect epidemics, and outbreaks of forest disease.”

“This causes the public to question if state or county governments wouldn’t be better stewards of the land,” she wrote. 

However, she stopped short of calling for a transfer of lands, and instead pointed toward the need for policy shifts.

“It is imperative that (the Department of Interior) partner with states to achieve the best possible use of public lands,” she wrote. “Current federal regulations pit DOI against the states in never-ending legal and political battles over land use. This arrangement is wasteful and contrary to DOI’s mission. DOI should develop agreements with state and local governments to determine the best management practices to improve economic activity and development, where acceptable, in and around federal land units.”

In earlier speeches, however, she has nodded more deeply toward land transfers—or at least sought to wield them as a Plan B to failed federal reform.

“Federal government’s broke here,” she told Congress in 2013. “We can’t continue to pay counties to not utilize the lands within their boundaries…. We either need to use our federal lands to generate the revenue and the jobs for our rural communities, or we should divest the federal government of those lands and let the states, or the counties or boroughs manage them.”

To Daven Hafey, a spokesman for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Murkowski’s policies add up to a more extractive style of management that gives too little attention to other uses of the public lands and its resources.

“Since taking office, Senator Murkowski has been eager to give away the Tongass National Forest to state management and private business, for the purpose of increased clear-cut, old-growth logging,” he said in an email. “Senator Murkowski has the opportunity to focus her support on the real money-makers in Southeast Alaska—fishing and tourism. But given her repeated support for outdated logging practices, we’re geared up to protect the Tongass from rapid exploitation.”

It’s too early to tell what legislation will move and what won’t with Republicans in charge of Congress, but Murkowski has proven herself a good political operative with an ability to make deals, get bills sponsored and get bills passed. That much we do know.

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