Murkowski touts relationships to keep Alaska ‘at the table’ for energy policy
Alaska’s resource extraction industries will be best served by working with, not against, the incoming Biden administration through an emphasis on how the industries can support Democrats’ broader goals for sweeping energy reform nationwide, according to Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
Alaska’s senior senator told viewers of the online Resource Development Council for Alaska annual fall conference Nov. 19 that she has had good working relationships with both President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in the Senate and that keeping Alaska “at the table rather than on the menu” when it comes to natural resource and climate policies will require proactive engagement from the state’s resource industry leaders.
“We have a good story to tell and it should be told,” Murkowski said while stressing that Alaska’s traditional mineral and renewable energy resources will be crucial for the national energy transition Biden and Harris campaigned on.
“If the new administration is going to achieve its goals it’s going to need to partner with Alaska rather than treating us as some kind of snow globe sitting up on a shelf or one big, giant national park or one big wildlife refuge,” she continued. “Let’s show them that our minerals need to be a part of the solution; that our oil and gas industry can lead in carbon management and we can harness the power of our renewables and that a stronger Alaska economy means a stronger national economy.”
Alaska mining proponents have long pointed to the plethora of prospects across the state for numerous metals and minerals needed in new energy technologies.
Murkowski specifically pointed to the Graphite Creek prospect near Nome, which would be the country’s only domestic source of graphite — a primary component of lithium-ion batteries used in electric vehicles and elsewhere — if it were developed.
Development of Alaska’s deposits of rare Earth elements, or REEs, most notably the Bokan Mountain prospect on Prince of Wales Island, is also seen by many as essential in-part for national security reasons as REEs are often used in defense technologies in addition to cell phones and other devices.
China currently supplies most of the world’s graphite and REEs.
Mining advocates have similarly emphasized that development of the state’s widespread copper resources will also be necessary to grow renewable energy production nationwide as copper wire is a main component of electric generators.
Some of the leading backers of a national carbon tax-and-dividend — the climate change policy favored by many conservatives — contend Alaska’s largely conventional oil and gas production is less carbon intensive than most oil and gas operations elsewhere in the country.
To that end, Murkowski noted that flaring of unwanted natural gas produced with oil is prohibited in the state. Additionally, wells tapping the state’s conventional oil and gas reservoirs produce at greater volumes for longer than the shale-focused fracked wells being drilled across the Lower 48, generally meaning fewer wells requiring less fuel to power drilling operations are needed in Alaska to produce more of the target resource.
However, Murkowski also said she expects the next administration to pursue much more aggressive policies aimed at cutting carbon emissions and limiting new oil and gas development if Democrats take control of the Senate with wins in the Jan. 5 runoff elections for Georgia’s Senate seats currently held by Republicans.
Such a scenario would give Democrats slight majorities in both chambers of Congress in addition to holding the White House.
Democrat wins in both Georgia Senate races would split the chamber 50-50 between the parties with Harris serving as the tiebreaking vote if need be.
Such a thin margin in the Senate could give Democrats the ability to reverse the rider to the 2017 tax bill that authorized oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain as budget-related bills requires a simple majority to pass the Senate; but it’s unclear how other standalone climate or environmental legislation could be passed without some level of Republican support or changes to Senate rules that currently require 60 votes to pass general legislation.
“I don’t think we should be afraid of (the climate change) conversation, but we should be ready for it. I think we need to thoughtfully engage on ways to reduce our emissions while fighting the policies that just take it too far,” Murkowski said.
Still, she said there will be a major speed bump for any legislation attacking mining — particularly coal mining — regardless of which party controls the Senate. That’s because the chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee either Wyoming Republican Sen. John Barrasso or West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, who come from the top two coal producing states in the country.
Murkowski currently chairs the committee but her turn as the top Energy and Natural Resources Republican will end with the new Congress in January per caucus rules. She will remain on the committee as the second-ranking Republican.
More immediately Murkowski said she still has hopes of passing the American Energy Innovation Act championed by her and Manchin in the three weeks Congress will be back working between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The Energy Innovation Act prioritizes new technologies to limit or capture and store carbon emissions from traditional energy sources; advancements in energy efficiency; small-scale nuclear development; and domestic mineral security among other provisions. If passed, it would be the first major energy reform legislation from Congress in more than a decade, according to Murkowski’s office.
A prior version of the omnibus energy bill passed both the House and Senate in 2016 with strong bipartisan support but died in a conference committee shortly before Christmas that year.
“If you want to look to a good template to begin to reduce your emissions look at our energy bill,” she said to conference viewers.
Murkowski acknowledged some in the audience of resource development backers likely aren’t keen on the stance she’s taken since August against the Pebble mine plan, but also countered that it’s the only Alaska resource project she has opposed.
“I have reached the same conclusion that Ted Stevens did many years ago — that this is the wrong mine in the wrong place,” Murkowski said, adding that she would prefer the Army Corps of Engineers deny Pebble Limited Partnership’s application for a Clean Water Act wetlands fill permit instead of the Environmental Protection Agency issuing a post-permit Clean Water Act Section 404(c) “veto,” which she says would set a bad precedent for other potential resource projects in the state.
A simple permit denial would allow PLP or another developer to reapply for project permits under a new plan.
Murkowski said the way Pebble executives portrayed the permitting process in the secretly recorded “Pebble Tapes” released in September — in which then-Pebble CEO Tom Collier and Northern Dynasty Minerals CEO Ron Thiessen touted expansion plans and their personal relationships with regulators and Gov. Mike Dunleavy to individuals posing as prospective investors — damages the credibility of Alaska’s broader resource industries.
“What we all saw play out in those awful Pebble Tapes was something that none of us should feel good or comfortable about,” she said. “If you have those who are attempting to sell a project through I believe not only fabrications and truly a dishonest appraisal of their own project, I think we should all be concerned. I don’t think that gives anybody’s development project in the state any help at all.”
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].