Murkowski ‘optimistic’ about progress on Alaska priorities in 2022

  • Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, speaks on Friday, July 9, 2021 during a welcoming ceremony for the arrival of the Royal Caribbean International Radiance-class cruise ship Serenade of the Seas on Friday, July 9, 2021 at Berth 4 in Ketchikan, Alaska. Getting a permanent exemption from the Passenger Vessel Services Act for Alaska cruises is on Murkowski's to-do list for 2022. (Dustin Safranek / Ketchikan Daily News)

Making an important but temporary exemption for Alaska-bound cruises permanent, prioritizing salmon and keeping one of Alaska’s largest oil projects in decades moving forward are among Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s objectives for the coming year, all while campaigning for reelection.

It’s going to be a busy 2022 for Alaska’s senior senator, but she says she’s welcoming it.

“I am so done with 2021,” Murkowski said in a Dec. 23 call with the Journal and the Anchorage Daily News.

“There are some good reasons to be hopeful and optimistic in 2022,” she said, despite what appears to be yet another wave of COVID-19 cases nationwide as we approach the new year.

And while inflation is presenting its own challenges, job markets are robust and the national economy continues to recover.

Alaska’s congressional delegation continues to push for resolution on a time-sensitive issue: a permanent Alaska-specific waiver from the Passenger Vessel Services Act, a 19th century law that Alaskans in the tourism business have become very familiar with over the past year. The PVSA, as it is often known, requires foreign-built, crewed or flagged passenger vessels sailing between U.S. ports to make at least one stop in a foreign port — an attempt to buoy the nation’s shipbuilding and maritime industries.

Last spring, Alaska’s congressional delegation successfully propelled the current, temporary exemption through Congress to President Joe Biden’s desk via Rep. Don Young’s Alaska Tourism Restoration Act.

The exemption was needed this year because Canadian transportation officials in February announced they again would not allow the ships to dock in the country’s ports in 2021 after similarly banning cruise ships in 2020, in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19.

All told, a little more than 100,000 passengers toured the Inside Passage via large cruise ship late last summer, representing about 10% of pre-pandemic cruise traffic to Alaska.

Southeast Alaska lost approximately 45% of the nearly 8,400 tourism-dependent jobs it had in 2019 when no ships sailed in 2020, according to state Labor Department figures.

Murkowski said she has not spoken to any Canadian government officials regarding the likely status of the country’s ports and borders next summer, but she believes stakeholders in British Columbia are concerned about a permanent PVSA exemption after assuming the temporary waiver wouldn’t pass.

“I think now they’re paying attention a little bit more,” she said. “If COVID is still active (next spring), right now our borders with Canada are in a much better place than they were in 2020, but what happens if Canada decides, nope, we’re not taking any risks with omicron so we’re going to put in place the same limits on our passenger vessels and (in Alaska) we’re stuck again. I want to address this and I think the proposal that I have is absolutely one that is worthy of advancing.”

She submitted a bill for a permanent Alaska PVSA waiver in September. The legislation includes a provision that reinstate the foreign-stop requirement on Alaska cruises if a large, U.S.-built cruise ship were to enter service. Currently, all of the world’s large cruise ships are foreign-built vessels.

Rep. Don Young also submitted legislation exempting Alaska cruises from the PVSA in the House.

Under the water, Murkowski said it’s past time for more resources to go toward learning more about the North Pacific and what changes in the ocean environment are doing specifically to salmon runs in Alaska, many of which are in concerning, downward trends across the sate.

“We’ve seen incredible abundance in Bristol Bay with our salmon and then absolute crashes on the Yukon and the Kuskokwim,” she said.

“We need to know and understand better what is happening.”

She noted that while more marine research funding alone is not likely to provide a total solution, it could help fill in data gaps from harvest surveys and other research work not done over the past two years because of the pandemic.

“We need to know that when we’re operating, we’re working with sound science and ensuring that we are funding (fisheries) research appropriately, and in my view, we haven’t placed the priority that we need on that,” Murkowski said.

She and Sen. Dan Sullivan are attempting to start rectifying that with the Alaska Salmon Research Task Force Act earlier this month. The bill that would establish a task force of 13 to 19 state, federal and stakeholder members with the directive to produce a report detailing current shortcomings in marine research and ways to improve Alaska salmon research and management.

On the North Slope, Murkowski said she will also be pressing Interior Department officials in the Biden administration to fix the issues in the federal environmental review for ConocoPhillips’ $8 billion Willow oil project identified by a U.S. District Court of Alaska judge earlier this year.

“Willow really is a huge and significant priority for me,” she said, adding that she’s been told progress is being made on the permit revisions needed before fieldwork can get started on the massive oil project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

The delegation collectively thanked President Joe Biden and administration officials for defending in court — though ultimately unsuccessfully — Willow’s permits approved under the Trump administration.

ConocoPhillips estimates Willow could generate more than 2,000 construction jobs over several years and oil production from the prospect could peak at upwards of 160,000 barrels per day.

More broadly, she expects congressional Democrats to pitch more targeted initiatives and legislation next year, which could help them gain more bipartisan support for some of what they want to do after the $1.75 trillion budget reconciliation bill failed in the Senate earlier this month.

To that end, Murkowski contends West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin “gave the country a gift” when he said he would not vote for the reconciliation bill, which included a repeal to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Coastal Plain oil and gas leasing program.

Manchin, whom she considers a friend, didn’t buy the “budget gimmicks” in the reconciliation bill, according to Murkowski. She estimates it would’ve ultimately cost more than $3 trillion after short-term funding streams for many of the proposed programs would have run dry.

“I think he was reminding (Congress) that if you want to have legislation that is going to be enduring for the country — that you’re going to have to figure out not just how to count to 50 Democrat votes, but how to get bipartisan support,” Murkowski said. She acknowledged that Republicans have used similar tactics to push legislation through in the past, but “it doesn’t make it any better.”

She would be open to discussions regarding some Democrat priorities, such as extending the child tax credit, if legislation follows its normal course, she added.

“Let’s sit and talk about it, let’s see what we can do,” Murkowski said in regards to the expiring child tax credit.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
12/29/2021 - 9:20am