Murkowski still pushing energy policy overhaul featuring nuclear power

  • Energy Secretary Rick Perry, left, speaks with Sen. Lisa Murkowsk, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, before testifying before the committee at a hearing on the President’s budget request for Fiscal Year 2020 on April 2 in Washington, D.C. Murkowski is championing a major update of the nation’s energy policy including small-scale nuclear power that could have major applications in remote Alaska. (Photo/Patrick Semansky/AP)

Expect to hear more from Sen. Lisa Murkowski on her plan to overhaul the nation’s complex energy policy.

Alaska’s senior senator said during a July 19 speech to the nonprofit policy study group Commonwealth North in Anchorage that its been 12 years since Congress last did a full-scale update to federal laws covering energy development, security, reliability and innovation.

Murkowski has said technology has made many of those policies outdated. She chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“There are things that you’d imagine coming from an Alaskan senator but there’s also a few things that you look at and you say, ‘well, where’d that come from?’” she said in reference to her proposed energy reform legislation.

Both the House and Senate passed versions of an energy reform package Murkowski championed in 2016. However, the bill died when conference committee negotiations stalled.

At the time, Murkowski blamed House Republican leaders for opting to leave Washington, D.C. for December holiday parties elsewhere instead of working out minor differences in the detailed legislation.

This go-round Murkowski is particularly highlighting the prospects of advanced nuclear power, which is something she said Alaskans should be very interested in for what it could to in rural communities to lower the cost of energy with zero emissions.

“Just imagine a system that’s the size of a connex and provides continuous power and needs to be refueled once every 25 to 30 years,” she said of potential small-scale nuclear power generation.

On July 16 the Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act with broad bipartisan support. The bill directs the Energy Department to establish advanced nuclear development goals, support nuclear research and work to make low-enriched uranium — nuclear power “fuel” — available for research and demonstration projects.

Murkowski has long touted Alaska’s capability to be on the forefront of energy technology development with its high energy costs and ranging climate and geography.

“We are leading as a state when it comes to microgrids and how we’re piecing these smaller energy solutions together,” she said. “We’re getting not only the attention of the nation, but of the world for what we’re doing.”

On health care, Murkowski, who was one of three Republican senators to vote against the party’s “skinny” repeal of the Affordable Care Act in 2017, said lawmakers and the public often get caught up in the cost and availability of health insurance, without addressing the underlying cost of care.

She also serves on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which sent the Lower Health Care Cost Act to the full Senate for consideration in early July.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the bill would have a net cost of about $9.4 billion over five years primarily through cuts to federal health insurance subsidies countered with increased spending for community health centers and other programs.

Murkowski said the Lower Health Care Cost Act attempts to curb some of the fundamental cost drivers for patients.

“It’s the first time that we’ve really drilled down on efforts to lower the actual cost of care through greater (billing) transparency, addressing prescription drug pricing and ending this surprise medical bill issue,” she said.

It would also change the minimum age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21.

And while members of Alaska’s congressional delegation rarely weigh in on issues before the state government, the severity of the budget-related impasse between legislators and the governor have tested that precedent. Sen. Dan Sullivan has urged state lawmakers to capture as much federal revenue as possible by appropriating the necessary state funds to match federal program contributions. Murkowski echoed that sentiment.

She said part of the delegation’s job is to stabilize and enhance the state’s economy, noting the $286 million in Defense spending Congress approved on projects at Interior Alaska military installations for this year.

The ongoing work to update infrastructure and expand operations at Eielson Air Force Base, Clear Air Force Station and Fort Greely has largely been credited with supporting the state’s construction industry while the state’s capital spending has been cut drastically amid years of budget deficits exceeding $1 billion.

Murkowski said the delegation is collectively working to determine exactly what the many deadlines are for the state to match funds for various federal programs.

“The thing with the federal side is they really don’t care what are problems are up here; they really don’t care whether we’re in Wasilla or Juneau, there’s a date and if they don’t hear from us by that date they assume that they’ve got access to something that was going to be in the Alaska pot, so they’re moving on to something else,” she described.

The largest single pool of money the state is at risk of losing because of the inability to pass funded capital budget is more than $910 million of federal highway and aviation infrastructure funds, which requires a state match of less than $100 million.

On July 23, the Anchorage Daily News reported that the Federal Highway Administration’s chief congressional liaison confirmed that Alaska has until 2020 to come up with matching funds for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid following an inquiry from the office of U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan.

The federal government’s fiscal year starts Oct. 1, explained liaison Tim Arnade, and the state becomes eligible for its federal highway aid at that point. As long as the state comes up with its matching funds before August 2020, it receives the full amount of federal highway aid. If it doesn’t come up with the money in time, the federal aid is redistributed to other states.

The inability of the Legislature and Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy to resolve their differences over the budget just adds to the air of economic uncertainty in the state, Murkowski said.

“Not everything’s perfect up here, but it never, ever, ever has been so let’s not get so focused on some of the challenges that are just gripping us and bringing us down. We’ve got to remember that we’ve got some challenges in front of us but we’ve got more opportunity than anybody out there. We still have still have $65 billion, with a ‘B,’ in the bank,” she said referring to the Permanent Fund. “We are not so broke we can’t figure our way out of this. We know how to do this we just have to come together as Alaskans and do it.”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
07/24/2019 - 9:00am

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