Sen. Murkowski makes it clear she’s willing to sell out Alaska’s public lands

At an annual energy conference, Murkowski celebrated the decision to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling for its economic benefits.

Chairman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, right, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., ranking member, conduct a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. (CREDIT: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Chairman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, right, and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., ranking member, conduct a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. (CREDIT: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

At an energy industry conference held this week in Texas, Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) argued that successfully opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling would help boost Alaska’s economy, which continues to struggle with unemployment rates well above the national average.

In Alaska, we are still sitting at 7.2 percent unemployment,” Murkowski said during a panel on Friday. “Our state is struggling from a revenue perspective. So the opportunity to do more for the first time in an area that we believe to have extraordinary resource potential is quite exciting.”

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But Murkowski’s comments also reveal a stark chasm in the lawmaker’s priorities — one that places more importance on money from fossil fuel extraction than preparing Alaska for the future consequences of climate change.

Alaska, perhaps more than any other state, has already seen the consequences of climate change. It has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the United States, is dealing with coastal erosion that could displace entire communities, and is already seeing a marked increase in wildfire activity.

Scientists widely accept that the burning of fossil fuels is the primary contributor to climate change, and numerous studies suggest that to limit the damage from climate change, a majority of the world’s fossil fuels will need to remain in the ground.

Murkowski, however, has worked for decades to open up portions of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — which is home to over 200 species of migratory birds as well as the Porcupine caribou and denning polar bears — to fossil fuel extraction, despite acknowledging that any actual production could be decades away.

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It’s not going to solve the budget woes that we have today,” Murkowski said on Friday, adding that the process will require years of permitting steps and studies from federal agencies within the Department of Interior.

The Interior Department recently announced its intention to begin the process of leasing portions of the refuge to oil and gas companies, which will begin with an environmental impact study to better understand how extraction could affect the sensitive area. The department said that it plans to hold its first lease for the region in four years — a longer timeline than proposed by Alaskan Senator Dan Sullivan (R), who suggested earlier this week that lease sales could begin as early as next year. Still, all contend that actual extraction likely wouldn’t take place for at least a decade.

But, Murkowski said, the decision to open the refuge to drilling “has added to a level of optimism in Alaska that we haven’t seen” in years.

Not everyone, however, agrees with Murkowski’s optimism.

The decision to open up the refuge to fossil fuel extraction has received an intense amount of pushback from environmental groups and local indigenous communities like the Gwich’in, which depend on the Porcupine caribou that breed throughout the refuge’s Coastal Plain for subsistence hunting. Environmental organizations have promised to challenge the process every step of the way to ensure that the federal government isn’t violating environmental laws in its haste to open the region to production.

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And energy experts question whether there will be large demand to drill in the refuge. If oil prices continue to remain low, it’s possible that companies will choose less expensive prospects in the lower 48 states than contend with drilling in the Arctic, which due to its remote nature and unpredictable weather, can be a more expensive undertaking.