Q&A: Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska on her ‘20/20’ vision for energy policy


Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the top ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, speaks to reporters about her blueprint for U.S. energy policy, “Energy 20/20.” (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
February 9, 2013

Months ago, when the Republicans still believed they had a chance of retaking the Senate, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) started to think about what she would do if she became chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

No need to worry about that. But Murkowski went ahead anyway and drew up a blueprint about how Congress might address energy issues. She unveiled the plan last week: “Energy 20/20: A Vision for America’s Energy Future.” The cover shows the nighttime satellite view of the United States, brightly lit almost everywhere except Alaska.

To prevent the booklet, which weighs in at 121 pages, from heading straight for the proverbial shelf, Murkowski has been talking to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the new committee chairman. They aren’t cooking up a comprehensive energy bill, but they are looking for more modest, doable things. “Singles and doubles,” is how one committee staffer put it.

For now, it’s hard to say what those might be. Murkowski’s plan includes support for nuclear energy, the Keystone XL pipeline and exports of coal and liquefied natural gas (LNG). She would put government money into energy storage research. She would make “clean energy” a relative term, defining it as “less intensive in global lifecycle impacts on human health and the environment than its likeliest alternative.” She would open up the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for oil and gas exploration. She would open up more federal offshore areas for oil and wind development, divert some of the royalties to the states and commit the rest to an Advanced Energy Trust Fund for clean-energy research and to pay down the national debt.

We spoke last week about her views on energy.

I like the cover.

When you look at the world at night you can identify energy sources. Those [well-lit areas] are the prosperous nations around the world. And then you see blackout zones. It’s a reminder that energy is good. It’s not this necessary evil that we sometimes tend to focus on. It’s what makes the world go round.

I’ve been told that you and Wyden are looking for “singles and doubles.”

If we can advance things that are smaller but still make a difference, I’m okay with that. You haven’t seen many initiatives move through this committee, get through the floor and get signed by the president. I’m okay with moving some things forward that will help address some of our environmental issues and jobs and move us to a better place as a nation, and I think we can do that with energy.

Yet you and Wyden don’t see eye to eye on many things. He has been leery of permitting LNG exports, for example.

I’ve said he is being cautious. There is a big difference between being cautious and saying I oppose exports. This is an area where we can have a good, legitimate discussion about what is currently in place. I think that the ability to export our abundant resources of LNG is good for us and quite honestly helps with the balance-of-trade issue. Japan would love to see LNG coming from its friend and closest ally, the United States.

It was interesting taking Senator Wyden to Alaska and see the LNG export facility there. Alaska has had the longest contract in the country going from Cook Inlet to Japan. He saw pretty quickly that Alaska is a different market from the Lower 48.

We had an interesting field trip.

They were doing a demonstration and had this boiling beaker with LNG bubbling up. And it looks really scary. You put your finger in. I said, “Yeah, it’s cold.” It’s like putting your finger in baby powder. They’re trying to demystify this. The really great thing was when someone dipped a graham cracker into the LNG and passed it around for the rest of us to eat. Senator Wyden waited for me to take the first bite to make sure I didn’t die. It was like a Thin Mint from the freezer. So I think we demystified some of the concerns about LNG.

What about the House?

So what about the House? Senator Wyden and I have already reached out to our counterparts. We got a good reaction from them. The four of us — [including House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (Mich.) and Rep. Ed Whitfield, chairman of the subcommittee on energy and power] — have agreed that we’d like to have occasional breakfasts and talk. That’s new territory, which is a good thing. I’m a firm believer that if you put together a good product that is just good policy, that is embraced by both sides so that it is seen as politically advantageous to the Republicans or Democrats, that even in this very polarized partisan world that you can advance legislation. I have to believe that or I wouldn’t want to get up every morning.

In some cases we get stuck on things like Yucca, [the proposed site for nuclear waste for which the Obama administration cut funding]. But let’s agree that the partisan back-and-forth is not going to hold us back. We’ll put together a good product. And my hope is that the House will embrace it accordingly. Signed, Polyanna.

You talk about energy abundance in your report, but you’re also concerned about “clean energy.” Don’t climate concerns introduce a constraint no matter how much oil and gas might be in the ground?

Think about what the oil and gas world looked like in the 1980s. The drilling technologies we used for oil in Prudhoe Bay left a pretty considerable footprint. Look to the ’90s, and the footprint in [new] fields is greatly reduced. It has allowed us to put wells 10 feet from one another and do directional drilling and go out eight miles around us so that the impact to the land is almost negligible.

In the last five, seven years, the boom is not because all of sudden there is more natural gas beneath the North American continent but that our technologies have allowed us to access this resource in a way that results in less emissions. So when you think about energy in terms of abundant versus scarce, it is important to keep in mind that our opportunities are only limited by the limits of our technology. What we’ve managed to do in a few short decades has allowed us to access resources in a way that reduces our environmental impacts and with fewer emissions.

It’s something absolute but more of a continuum that’s going to allow us to have a cleaner environment, cleaner water, cleaner air and access to resources that will give us what we need to heat and cool and be comfortable. At same time, there is an awareness and a responsibility to our environment.

I guess it’s a more holistic approach.

You’ve said that we need to stimulate clean energy, but you don’t want to raise the price of dirty fuels and you don’t want subsidies. How do we do that?

You’ve got to move us to these technologies that allow us to get to the ­clean-energy source. If we can’t work to reduce the cost, you’re not going to see them implemented unless there is a path of unlimited subsidies, and that’s not doable, either. We can kick-start the research process, but we have to do that from a position of economic strength. You can’t raise costs, injure the economy and think you’re going to get somewhere.

Let me take you back to Alaska. In Aniak, people are paying $6.90 for a gallon of diesel. A gallon of unleaded gas is $7.37. It is not attached to any energy grid. Their options are burning wood or diesel. So when the New York Times says all we need to do is encourage people to burn less and that’s going to reduce our emissions, you’re telling me I’m going to contact my people back home and tell them that for the good of the order you’re going to pay $10.99 — but you could use less. The temperature at the Aniak airport was 48 below.

How we deal with [energy] storage is key. We’ve got to figure out that piece.

Isn’t that similar to what the Energy Department has been doing with the economic recovery grants and loans?

Tax credits are here today, gone tomorrow. Talk to folks within the wind industry and they’re saying, “Please give us some certainty.” I’m not afraid to spend money on the R&D that’s really going to move us to a cleaner energy source that I think is so much the answer to the issues of environmental responsibility and climate change. Let’s have a climate policy that’s a no-regrets policy.

Where’s the money going to come from?

If we have increased production. Take Alaska, because we have such enormous opportunity there. We can open up ANWR. We have opportunity in the National Petroleum Reserve of Alaska. We have offshore resources we can tap into in a more aggressive yet environmentally responsible manner. . . . The boom in natural gas, 96 percent of it has been on private or state lands. We’ve got huge fed lands. What are we doing to tap into those resources? Those are revenues we’re sitting on. Let’s extract those revenues as well and build out the future.

There are lots of colleagues who say that what we really should be doing is putting that money toward the deficit. I agree but also feel that we should put in place a mechanism that directs part of the lease sales to a renewable-energy fund; we called it the “deployment fund.” For a long time I’ve said this is how we can help build out these technologies. We can do this short of raising your taxes or increasing costs to the consumer.

Right now the feds are getting zero percent of nothing.

How does one keep from getting cynical?

I can remember when George W. Bush in his State of the Union said that when a child who was born today gets his driver’s license he will be driving a hydrogen vehicle. I thought that was so cool. You’ve got to dream big.

But we’re not driving hydrogen vehicles. That’s been a bust.

Well we’re not driving hydrogen vehicles. But let’s not give up on that.

Steven Mufson covers energy and other financial news.
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