By Jenny Neyman
Sen. Lisa Murkwoski’s report in Kenai on Wednesday regarding the U.S. Senate’s accomplishments this session was a frustration-laden, “Effectively, not much.” Her hope is that there will be more progress on which to report during her next recess trip back home to Alaska but said that, unless her Republican Party wrests control from the current-majority Democrats, she’s not optimistic of that, either.
“The reason that you’re not seeing things happen is not that there is nothing to do. It’s because we’ve gotten so entrenched with the partisan nature with what is happening in the Congress, particularly in the Senate,” Murkowski said during a visit to a joint Kenai-Soldotna chamber luncheon meeting at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center. “You’re not seeing a lot of productivity, and that hurts us as a nation because we’re not governing when we’re not being productive.
“It’s been unfortunate because we’ve got a whole host of things that I think are front-burner issues. I feel pretty strongly that we’ve got a responsibility to deal with the budget, deal with appropriations, we’ve got debt issues that we need to address, we’ve got an immigration situation, we have a weak-kneed foreign policy approach and issues as they relate to what is going on overseas,” she said.
Matters of particular relevance to Alaska also aren’t being considered, she said. Instead, Murkowski said that the majority leader, Harry Reid, D-Nevada, is using his ability to set the schedule in the Senate to fill time with judiciary appointments.
“Alaska’s agenda is not being heard in the Senate right now. I believe that is due in main part to the fact that you have a majority leader that just has a different agenda than a resource-development state like Alaska.”
She’s hoping for six Senate seats to go to Republicans in the November election — including the one Mark Begich, D-Alaska, is seeking re-election to, in order to switch majority control. With her seniority, that change would move her into chair positions on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Interior and Environment Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and allow Republicans to set the Senate agenda.
“I need to have a majority leader that agrees that our nation’s economy is better, that the opportunities for Alaskans and all Americans are better when we’re able to access our resources in a responsible way. I need to have the confidence that that person is helping set the agenda, and we’re not going to have that if Harry Reid continues,” she said.
But Murkowski acknowledges that having control can be a double-edged sword, as it would also be a litmus test for Republicans.
“As Republicans if we reclaim the majority and we fail to govern, my view is, as a party, you will not see us come back into power for years and years after this. We have to demonstrate that we can govern or we will not be placed with that authority. There’s a lot on our shoulders and we’ve got one shot to do it right,” she said.
Her time in Alaska over the recess has been far busier. Her itinerary on the Kenai Peninsula last week included addressing the chamber meeting, as well as a debriefing on the Funny River Fire, the Kenai River Classic Roundtable discussion about recreational fishing and the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and Kenai’s Industry Appreciation Day, which she makes a point of attending.
“When a whole community, when a whole region comes together to celebrate the industry that feeds their families and educates them, it’s good to be part of that. I think far too often we take for granted the jobs that we have in our region, and we might grouse or groan or gripe about it, but very seldom do we see real industry appreciation, and you have that down on the peninsula,” she said.
Alaskans also demonstrated that they’re open to industry in voting down Proposition 1 the day before, which would have repealed Senate Bill 21, the Legislature’s change to the state’s oil tax system. Murkowski supported the campaign to keep the new tax and incentive structure.
“I don’t know if SB21 is the magic configuration, if we got the numbers just right. I think we’re starting to see some positive indicators. I think we’re seeing some additional jobs come on line, some additional contracts being let, we’re starting to really see that investment that will actually produce more when it comes to revenues and production,” she said. “… If we don’t see the revenues coming in, if we don’t see that production coming up, then that’s what your Legislature does. They can go back and recalibrate. But right now I think it’s important that there be a message to industry that, ‘Look, we want you to be here. We want you to continue the job that you’re doing. It needs to be fair for all, for Alaskans and for those that are creating the jobs.”
Oil and gas exploration and production are critical to the state’s economic well-being, she said, and SB21 creates more incentive for that to happen.
“We’re a state that relies for over 90 percent of our state’s budget coming from the oil industry. It’s pretty imperative that we continue to see a high level of return to our state so that we can build the roads and allow for public safety and make sure that we’ve got good schools. And we’ve got resources out there — we know that. But, I don’t know about you, I’m not skilled enough to go up north and produce this oil by myself. We rely on the producers to do that. We rely on them to go out there and explore and develop and get that oil into a line that is more than half empty now. In order for the producers to do that, there has to be a competitive environment for them to operate in,” she said.
The Kenai Peninsula particularly stands to gain if Nikiski ends up being the terminus of the state’s dreamed-for LNG project. As well it should, Murkowski said, given that Nikiski has a 40-year history of successfully and safely exporting LNG.
“I think that we’ve demonstrated very clearly the capacity and the capability, with the skilled people that you have here, the ability to operate safely and consistently,” she said. “… There is a resurgence here on the Kenai, and I think that that’s good, that’s important.”
But the peninsula has challenges, as well as potential. The sometimes-at-odds intersect between state and federal government plays out in many ways throughout the region. The Environmental Protection Agency, for instance, has stepped up regulations and permitting requirements when it comes to industry.
“But I’m pretty comfortable they will be able to do what they have to do to get operational and keep things moving, to keep the jobs on tap,” she said.
The EPA’s proposed limitations on large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay region — which would restrict options for Pebble Mine if it were to proceed, are an overreach, she said.
“What I don’t like about where we are with EPA right now is their effort to preclude consideration of a mine before a plan has been submitted. And what I have objections to is a federal agency coming in and basically defining a project before a project has been defined and saying they can’t do it,” she said. “… When they unilaterally expand that authority on either end before a permit has been even submitted, or after it has been submitted and in operation and approved and then they come in later and say, ‘Well, we changed our mind.’ I think that there needs to be some certainty within the regulatory process, and so my objection has not been to Pebble, per se, it has been an expansion of agency authority.”
A disastrous tailings mine breach at Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia in early August — which Pebble opponents point to as a canary in the coal mine for what could happen to Bristol Bay if Pebble’s open-pit mine were to go forward — is indeed cause for concern, Murkowski said.
“If we can’t ensure that there is a level of safety and adherence to the terms of the permits and conditions, this should trigger alarms in everyone,” she said.
Investigation is continuing into what happened, and Murkowski has urged Secretary of State John Kerry to call for a panel review of the situation. Without knowing why and how the failure occurred, comparing it to Pebble is apples and oranges.
“We’ve got to be smart with this. Pebble raises its own level of controversy, if you will. I have repeatedly said you can argue the merits of the mine — is this too big, is it the wrong place? But it is not yet fully defined,” she said.
Wildfire management on the peninsula is another area of federal-state governmental intersection where tensions can strain, as state and local municipalities as well as the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service all have jurisdiction over land in the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
“At the time (the start of the Funny River Fire) there was a lot of speculation, ‘Did we have appropriate assets? Were there issues about what we had done to provide for a level of firewise and fire safety in advance on the refuge, and the intersect between refuge operations (and) what happens with the state?’” Murkowski said. “And our reality down here on the peninsula is we’re going to continue to see fires here. And we’re going to continue to see fires in areas where people live. And, so, how we are going to be better prepared for the next inevitable fire season, I think, is part of what we need to be thinking about.”
If Republicans do take control of the Senate, Murkowski will be in line to be chair of the Senate Interior and Environment Subcommittee, which could be particularly beneficial to Alaska.
“This is (a) significant position for us when you hold not only the authorizing side but the appropriating side of issues that are important to your state,” she said. “… And you’re able to include language in appropriation bills that really does help to advance initiatives beyond just funding.”
With so much alphabet-agency involvement in Alaska — EPA, USFWS, USFS, etc. — Murkowski is continually cognizant of federal-state intersection, even if currently those issues aren’t making it to the top of Congress’ priority list.
“When you think about the impact to this region, it’s multifaceted. And the opportunity to direct and influence these agencies and departments that have such influence over us as Alaskans in our day-to-day life is huge,” she said.