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POLITICS: PennAve

Lisa Murkowski walks a tightrope between energy development and environmental concerns

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Congress,Senate,Alaska,Climate Change,2014 Elections,PennAve,Energy and Environment,Zack Colman,Lisa Murkowski,Magazine

Lisa Murkowski's name is etched in a slab of sidewalk just blocks from the Capitol.

"Fill it in Write it in Lisa Murkowski," the concrete reads vertically, referring to the instructions the Alaska Republican gave voters during her improbable 2010 write-in campaign to keep her Senate seat after losing the GOP primary to a Tea Party challenger. It was the first write-in victory for a congressional campaign since 1954, when Democratic Sen. Strom Thurmond pulled it off.

Somebody made Murkowski part of Washington's permanent landscape. The people of Alaska made Murkowski part of its permanent history.

"I think it allows me certainly more freedom than other Republicans in my caucus because I'm not going to be one that just toes that party line, because that is what is expected," Murkowski told the Washington Examiner. "I think Alaskans expect me to think, to think about them, and do the right thing for them."

Murkowski, 57, had a lot riding on that election. That's also true of the one this November, though she is not up for re-election this time.

If Republicans capture the Senate, she will become Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman -- just like her father, former Alaska GOP Sen. Frank Murkowski -- and lead the Appropriations Committee's interior and environment panel.

She has outlined her agenda in a 121-page report titled Energy 2020. It's Murkowski's blueprint for where the nation's energy policy ought to head this decade and is one of many thoroughly researched papers she has produced. There's plenty of standard Republican fare, such as expanding energy development on federal land, but it also emphasizes boosting basic research funding and sharing new technologies with other countries.

Such reports are typically wonkish treatises containing more idealism than pragmatism. They're written for policymakers, think tankers, reporters.

Murkowski's starts differently. It begins with, "Dear Reader."

She may be a nerd on energy policy, but she wants to be understood by Alaskans and the every-American.

"I had a guy come up to me and he said, 'That was the most ... readable white paper I've ever read. You've distilled it in a way that a guy like me can understand it.' And that's what we're trying to do," Murkowski said.

Although her father was a senator and, later, governor of Alaska, Murkowski wasn't immersed in politics from childhood. Sure, her father ran for Congress before his 1980 Senate victory -- he lost the 1970 race for Alaska's House seat to Democrat Nick Begich, father of current Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich. But Murkowski, the second of six children, was already out of the house, graduating from Georgetown University in 1980 and heading for Willamette College of Law in Salem, Ore.

She lived in the Alaskan logging town of Ketchikan until fourth grade, when the family moved to Fairbanks. Her dad was "the local banker," her mom a volunteer in the parent-teacher association.

People were expected to undertake leadership roles in small-town Alaska, Murkowski said. It's part of Alaska's independent streak. The federal government was concerned that Alaska — separated from the Lower 48 — was so big, with so few people and so little infrastructure that permitting it to collect revenues from natural resources to avoid relying on Uncle Sam was a condition of statehood.

That deal paid off starting in the 1970s, when she was a teenager. Oil revenue began flowing as the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System tapped the still-flowing Prudhoe Bay oil field on Alaska's North Slope.

"Everybody was talking about energy. Everyone was talking about how oil was transforming our state. And there was awareness of what energy resources and energy wealth could bring to us," Murkowski said.

That infrastructure changed the state's economic lifeblood. And it triggered a continuing debate over the balance between the energy economy and Alaska's traditional industries — timber, fisheries, minerals — that rely on the state's fragile ecosystem.

Murkowski says that history shapes her approach.

Take the Pebble Mine, a proposed copper-and-gold mine slated for the Bristol Bay watershed in southwest Alaska. The Environmental Protection Agency on Friday proposed restrictions on its development that could lead to it being blocked. Murkowski disagrees with a potential EPA veto, calling it a "pre-emptive" because no formal plan has been submitted. But she also urged the developer to detail how its design wouldn't imperil the world's largest sockeye salmon run.

"I'm all about accessing our resources, I'm all about those jobs. But I want to make sure I'm not expensing one for the other," Murkowski said of Bristol Bay, where one of her two sons is working this summer at a fishery. (She and her husband, Verne Martell, a small business owner, were married in 1987.)

While a moderate among GOP lawmakers, Murkowski's climate change record is muddy. Her effort to strike a balance between energy and the environment is made more complex, even ironic, by the fact that warming temperatures are melting the Arctic ice cover and in the process opening new oil and gas drilling opportunities -- and potentially new revenue for Alaska.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., once quipped to the Examiner, "Her state is melting." Murkowski doesn't disagree. She says humans contribute to climate change, though she said it's not important to quibble over how much, and that the United States must take a "no regrets" approach.

But Murkowski, like most Republicans, opposes the Obama administration's proposed power plant emissions regulations. She sponsored a failed 2010 resolution barring the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. In Energy 2020, she wrote that the climate change "discussion is too poorly framed to allow for meaningful political progress."

Energy 2020 contains little about climate change. Murkowski, when asked what should be done legislatively, gave a response to the Examiner that even she admitted was gauzy. "I know that that's kind of a lot of mush words."

Murkowski argues that the Obama administration's environmental regulations will hamstring the economy, leaving less money for companies to invest in research and development. If the United States is going to make any tangible difference on global emissions, she said, it must develop and share new technologies.

"When you put in place regulations that are so burdensome, so tough, so much so that they cripple your economy, we then don't have the resources to invest in technologies that are going to make that difference because it's just going to shut everything down. That's not going to help us as an economy," she said.

An environmental lobbyist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said a Murkowski-led Energy Committee would oppose many environmental priorities, but that it could be worse.

"Senator Murkowski is a very reasonable and moderate senator. She's a very nice person. She's a good listener," the lobbyist said. "So even when she doesn't agree with my position, it's not like a [Oklahoma Republican] Jim Inhofe or a [Wyoming Republican] John Barrasso where she's poking me in the eye."

Democrats also say they would have a curious, knowledgeable ear on energy policy.

"At a time when there's so much about politics and government that just kind of almost seems fake in the artifice and the rituals and the like -- Senator Murkowski basically doesn't want any part in that. She's a real person. She wants to cut through all the silliness and deal with the gridlock around real policy issues," said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who worked closely with her when he was Energy Committee chairman.

Although Republicans oppose many of the Obama administration's environmental and energy policies, Murkowski doesn't plan to be a Republican mouthpiece if she's leading the Energy Committee.

That's partly because whichever party holds the Senate will have a slim majority.

But it also goes back to her write-in election.

If it were merely about choosing a Republican, Alaskans had that option. Instead, Murkowski handed out wristbands in November 2010 with her name on them, hoping enough people would write it in, and write it in correctly.

"I was returned to the Senate not by my party," she said, mentioning that her husband gave her a gold replica of that wristband. "I was returned to the Senate by the people of Alaska, and I have an obligation to all of them — it's not an obligation to my party, it's an obligation to Alaskans."

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Zack Colman

Staff Writer
The Washington Examiner

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