Alaska’s senior senator, Lisa Murkowski, stopped by the Clarion offices Thursday to speak about issues affecting the state — sustainable energy production, infrastructure development, the COVID-19 pandemic, voting rights reform and ongoing partisanship divides locally and nationally.
Infrastructure and environment
On the issue of climate change, Murkowski acknowledged the risks climate change poses to the people and land of Alaska.
“We’re seeing the impacts of climate change. We’re seeing warmer temperatures in our oceans,” she said. “That’s impacting everything from habitat to the species. We’re seeing it on land. We’re seeing it with the extent of the ice receding, and that has consequences.”
One way she has worked to tackle climate change, she said, is through the passage of the Energy Act of 2020, bipartisan legislation passed as part of an appropriations bill in December 2020. As chairman of the Senate Energy and National Resources Committee, Murkowski said she was able to advance the legislation, which includes a number of provisions addressing carbon emissions, energy efficiency and the use of renewables.
“We’ve already seen the gains made from that initiative: the emphasis on what we’re doing to build out renewables, the technology behind what we’re doing to increase efficiencies (and) cut our emissions,” Murkowski said. “So we put that all in place at the end of 2020 with that bill, but that doesn’t put the money behind it.”
The Energy Act set up the authorizing language to work to reduce greenhouse gas emission on a number of fronts, Murkowski said, while funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed in November 2021 is a concrete starting point for combating climate change in the state.
“Within that we have effectively worked to fund so many of the energy initiatives,” she said.
The infrastructure act, which Murkowski called “probably the most historic and enduring legislation that I’ve had an opportunity to work on,” allocated approximately $5 billion for projects in Alaska, according to a Whitehouse factsheet.
Just this month, officials announced the allocation of hundreds of million in federal dollars for various Alaska projects, including $28 million for the Kenai bluff stabilization project, which as been decades in the making.
“I have been working with (local) leaders for years on this initiative, recognizing the threat that it poses to property and life safety issues,” she said. “So to be able to say there’s $28 million coming for this, all of a sudden we’re talking real money.”
Seward also received $185 million for the Lowell Creek flood diversion project, which Murkowski said she also advocated for. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the project seeks to upgrade the existing tunnel system that diverts flooding and debris during high-water events in Lowell Creek Canyon.
Murkowski highlighted the effect infrastructure funds will have in the most remote parts of the state, where there may be lack of access to roads, rail, bridges, broadband, water, and the ferry system, among others.
“They talk about underserved areas in the Lower 48 — we have completely unserved areas in Alaska,” she said. “This law … put in place infrastructure that’s going to be with us for decades and decades to come.”
In a state that relies heavily on fossil fuels as an economic driver, and which has already had some of the most direct impacts from climate change, energy production and the environmental impact of fossil fuels are deeply entwined. While Murkowski acknowledged the shift toward renewable and clean energy, she also emphasized the importance fossil fuels play in the state’s economy.
“I’m not afraid of the push for clean and renewable energy. We should be doing that every day. I think we recognize that it’s in everyone’s best interests but it’s also important for us to recognize that we bring value as a state with our oil and natural gas resources.”
She touted the need for responsible future development of oil and gas that will bring jobs and economic stability for the state.
“We will still need oil, we will still need natural gas, we will still need these carbon-based fuels,” Murkowski said. “It’s just how we’re accessing them. And so let’s be able to produce the resources that we have in our state to the benefit of Alaskans, giving us those jobs, giving us that revenue.”
She criticized the current presidential administration for limiting oil extraction in Alaska. President Joe Biden issued an executive order halting new Arctic drilling on his Inauguration Day, and later suspended drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Bureau of Land Management also announced earlier this month that it would rollback plans approved under the Trump administration to allow drilling in millions of acres of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.
“We’re up against an administration that has really targeted Alaska’s resource wealth, which I think is a failure to understand how Alaska has responsibly developed and produced these resources … for decades for the benefit of the country and the benefit of our people.”
Although she wasn’t specific about her campaign’s COVID policies, Murkowski said she empathizes with how Alaskans have been affected by the pandemic.
“All we want is normalcy, all we want is to get rid of the masks, to be able to gather in person, to not have people sick,” Murkowski said. “It’s been hard because it’s changing, and it’s hard when we can’t control things.”
She commended former President Donald Trump’s administration for its effort to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, and said the vaccine was one of the turning points of the pandemic.
“The fact that we were able as a country to develop the vaccines — three vaccines, actually — in as quick a manner as we did, this is a huge credit to the Trump administration and Operation Warp Speed. … You had people who did nothing 24/7 than to focus on how we were going to get these vaccines out.”
She noted that a lot of the discourse among lawmakers now is about how to coexist with the virus, rather than try to eradicate it.
“I fear that we will be living with some level of COVID, certainly for the indefinite future,” Murkowski said. “If I’ve learned anything, it’s to expect the unexpected and to try to operate with a little bit of grace for where everybody is coming from.”
The senator said she is fully vaccinated against COVID and has also received her booster.
In 2020, Alaskans voted to abolish party primaries and institute a ranked choice voting system, a decision that was heralded as a way to reduce political divides and draw looser lines around parties, the Associated Press reported.
This will be the first Alaska election to be determined by the new system. Murkowski said that while she’s excited for the potential of voters having more options, she is concerned about the execution.
“My fear is that sometimes when people see something new and they’re not quite sure how it’s going to work, they’re going to be more inclined to just say ‘Maybe I’ll pass on this one,’” she said. “And that’s not the outcome that we want.”
The new voting system does away with party primaries, with all voters receiving a single ballot. The top four vote-getters move on to a general election, where voters rank candidates in order of preference.
While Murkowski said she’s concerned about how the new voting system will be received, she said she thinks it will result in a less polarizing campaign cycle.
“People are looking at this and saying, ‘Is this going to be some wild, crazy experiment that Alaskans did?’” she said. “Or could this be a path for better elections that will allow for, I think, a more moderated approach to legislating. Instead of having people who felt like they don’t have that flexibility (or) that freedom to move outside the confines of their party.”
Murkowski is a registered Republican, but said she doesn’t completely align with either party in the two-party system.
“I am encouraged about the opportunity for perhaps just a more moderated politics, because right now politics are anything but moderated,” she said. “We have gotten to a place where Washington, D.C., is so partisan.”
Murkowski has strayed from party lines a number of times, perhaps most notably when she voted to convict Trump of inciting an insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol.
The senator, however, recently stayed in line with Republican efforts to defeat a Democratic measure that packaged two pieces of voting rights legislation.
Murkowski said she supported one of the measures — the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would allow the federal government to oversee state voting laws to prevent voter discrimination; however, she had issues with the Freedom to Vote Act, which would create national regulations for voting by mail and early voting, among other things.
“I have been, not only for this Congress but for prior congresses, the only Republican that has stepped forward and said the John Lewis Voting Rights Act … needs to be reauthorized,” Murkowski said. “There is need for voting rights and voting rights reform and protections to ensure that everyone’s vote is acknowledged, that our elections are free and fair and transparent.”
She said she was concerned certain sweeping federal provisions included in the Freedom to Vote Act that might make sense in some areas — such as opening polls for in-person early voting — would be too cumbersome for areas like rural Alaska.
“Voting rights need to be good for all Americans and I don’t care whether you’re in your small remote village or whether you’re in New York City. So making sure that this is going to be enduring means you’ve got to be working with both sides.”
Despite the defeat of the Democratic legislation, Murkowski expressed optimism about a bipartisan path forward on voting rights.
After a Wednesday night vote that killed the legislation, by Thursday morning, she said, “We had already formed a working group and had had our first phone conversation meeting about what is it that we can do as Republicans and Democrats to come together to build legislation that can gain the support — not only of a majority of senators, but a majority in the House and get signed into law.”
Murkowski said she feels that her tenure in the Senate bodes well for her reelection campaign.
“That seniority that I bring to the United States Senate has not just been in years, it’s been in significant deliverables,” she said.
Her energy and infrastructure work are among some of her most notable accomplishments for Alaska, she said.
“I have worked to actually build legislation, build relationships and build successes,” she said. “It’s been good for Alaska, and there’s more work to do. And so I’m asking for the privilege that only Alaskans can grant, by way of their vote, to continue that service for another term.”
Murkowski is up for reelection this November.