POLITICO Pro Q&A: Senate Energy Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski Back

Senate Energy Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski has recently scored major victories on long-running issues for Alaska, such as the nearly 40-year quest to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, and she's optimistic a deal is near to end her battle to build road to King Cove soon as well.

Murkowski emerged largely unscathed after breaking with the Trump administration on Obamacare last summer, and she says she has a good relationship with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Still, after the turnaround on opening Florida's coast to oil and gas drilling, she says the agency is likely to further shrink its offshore drilling lease plan, including removing some Alaskan waters that Zinke had included.

And she said even through some in the Trump administration are "really squeamish" about discussing climate change, she isn't, and it's important for the U.S. to lead the world with technologies to address the problem.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

You've notched some really key policy victories as chairman — such as opening ANWR, lifting the crude oil export ban and the land swap for the King Cove road. Is there some sort of secret sauce to getting things done in this highly polarized time?

I think part of it is persistence. I can't lay claim to being the one that led the way on either ANWR or King Cove. Those were started by my father and [former Sen.] Ted Stevens. Both of them. In the case of ANWR, it was 37 years. With King Cove, it was merely about three decades.

It has been such a long battle. And people have asked me, "Criminy, Lisa, you just like tilting at windmills all the time. It's been years. Why can't you even get this tiny little road? ANWR, you should just give up on it." You don't give up on something if it's right. And the cause was right with both of them.

And so whether it is ANWR or whether it is a small connector road to safety, these are issues that are hard because people don't understand Alaska. I think part of what I bring to the table — and it's not unique because it's not something I have that neither my father or Ted or Don Young doesn't have — but I am just very, very, very passionate about Alaska. And anybody who works for me will tell you and anybody whose had to sit next to me on an airplane knows that.

You're also frequently called a moderate. Is that a label you like? Do you accept that?

Moderate is just fine by me. Because I interpret that to mean someone who is willing to look at all sides of the issue. Sometimes I may come down on the conservative side. Sometimes I may come down on the more liberal side. And, if in being thoughtful, it puts me more in the middle that is a place I'm happy to be.

When did you first see a realistic path for ANWR to get through?

It was really when the president was elected.

That far back, really?

When we knew that we had a Republican president, that immediately got me started thinking. Because I can tell you that if Hillary Clinton had become president, we would not have ANWR open. It was her husband that vetoed it after the Congress passed back in 1995 and I would have expected no different had she been president. So when Trump gained office, it allowed for an opportunity in my mind to build a strategy. What I had been doing throughout my tenure here had been every year, every Congress I introduced another ANWR bill. Even though in the years of the Obama administration where there was not a snowball's chance that ANWR would be open, we still introduced the bill, allowed it to be out there for discussion. Everybody knows it's still a priority. I never let it flounder in the idea box, but we knew legislatively we didn't have opportunity.

When Trump won, then we started thinking, "What is the strategy? What is the approach?" And when we came in in January very early — it may have even been the first week back — I met with [Senate Majority] Leader [Mitch] McConnell and said, "I'm not quite sure what the path might be going forward but we have an opportunity with ANWR now with a new administration, with a House and a Senate that are in Republican hands and I think we need to build a strategy going forward. And if there's an opportunity through reconciliation, it would be helpful if the Energy Committee had instructions to find revenues because we could do so with ANWR."

Are you surprised you've been able to be as effective as you have under the president given you were so critical of him during the 2016 election?

I don't know the president that well. I'm getting to know him a little bit better. I think all Americans are getting to know him a little bit better. I was clearly not on his good list this summer, I guess. I kind of was put in the penalty box for a while, but I got back on the ice and we scored a goal here. ...

I think what we saw was an alignment of priorities. The things I had been working on, they resonate with this president. And it's not because my ideas are so brilliant. It's that you have a president who believes in our economic opportunities that come from utilizing our energy resources and what that can bring. I think he looks at Alaska, I think, and sees opportunity there.

How's your relationship with Secretary Zinke at this point?


The beer summit worked?

The beer summit worked. It was a great opportunity for us to just sit down and not only talk though what's going on in the office, but to know one another better. He's a fellow Westerner. He's a skier too. And to just kind of know and understand who he is and some of his views and ideas, because he is a significant influence in a state like mine where so much of Alaska is public lands. And I've always said the Secretary of the Interior is like Alaska's landlord. And he said, "I don't think I want to be your landlord. I want to be your partner." That's a much different attitude than we've had with previous secretaries.

Did you get off on a weird footing to start though?

No. No. I always prefer when others affirm their own comments, but he made very clear to me, "Your state is important to the Department of the Interior." And he said, "The issues that you deal with in your committee are really important to me. And, oh by the way, you're also the chairman of the Appropriations Committee that has oversight of everything. We're going to get to know one another pretty well." And we have. And I think that's been important, because there are some difficult issues that we deal with in this space. Having an understanding of where he's coming from and why, I think he recognizes that if there's going to be news coming that is going to be big news, it's best to try to give us a heads up so we're not flat-footed and so that if we've got questions about it. Kind of the no surprise policy.

So you knew he was going to announce a reversal on Florida offshore drilling ahead of time then?

No, I didn't know about the Florida announcement, but I can't say that it surprises me. The one thing that surprised me about it is that it came as soon as it did. And I think that's what has gotten everybody. If he had made this announcement a month from now, I don't think it would have been that big of a deal.

People will be weighing in. I expect them to weigh in in Alaska and I'm encouraging them to do so because I don't think all 19 areas in offshore Alaska should be open for oil and gas leasing.

Is it the right call to remove Florida from the five-year lease plan though? Back in 2016 when President Obama pulled back on Atlantic offshore drilling, you said that move "undermines the energy security of our country and is an ominous warning to Alaskans." What's different this time?

I think you had a couple of different things going on. I think you had a level of support in some of the Atlantic seaboard states. Florida has always been pretty outspoken — even the Republicans — in that there are areas that are acceptable for oil and gas leasing and other areas that are not. Was I surprised that ultimately Florida offshore was taken off? No.

Do you think more areas will be taken off before we're done?

Oh yeah. I think you will see areas that will drop off. Again, in Alaska, we've got 19 areas. Gulf of Alaska is extraordinary fishing grounds for us. Has there been anybody that has been poking around looking for oil there in the last 50 years? No. Do I think it should be part of this year's five-year lease sale? I don't think so. I don't think there's any interest there. Where the interest is for us is up in the Arctic and it's in Cook Inlet where we've been producing oil and gas for decades and decades and decades.

There are other areas that I think we — Alaskans — are more interested in pursuing. If we're not going to pursue these areas in the next five years, take them off. That's the beauty of this five-year plan and this is where you need people to just kind of calm down a little bit. First of all, what the secretary put out there is a draft. The other thing to remember is this is not permanent. This is for five years.

But do you think Zinke could have handled it better to have avoided this initial firestorm? And more broadly, it seems like there's been a steady stream of negative stories about him — whether that's his travel or fundraising practices or something else. Are you concerned at all with how he's running the department?

There's a lot of stories because people are looking for stories and you've got new people in the administration. So I'm not going to comment on whether things could have been handled better or worse in terms of some of the stuff that's come out.

Do I think Secretary Zinke has given direction and focus to the Department of Interior when it comes to how we access our public lands and how we encourage our energy potential on our public lands? I think he's doing the right things. What he has done — what his folks have done — not just with the executive orders but with some of the regulations that are being pulled back, they're taking things in a direction that I certainly agree with.

I think that the direction on policy that we're seeing out of Interior right now is strong and it's necessary. I think it's shaken some people up. And, again, the way the lease sale was handled in terms of what was laid down was an approach that was entirely different than the way the Obama administration chose to take it. They put a very few things out there and then they continued to take from that.

With the Trump administration, what Secretary Zinke did was he put everything out there and then he's going to winnow it down so it's right size.

What about Secretary Rick Perry? Do you have any reaction to FERC's move earlier this week to reject his power plan?

I certainly respected the authority of Secretary Perry to go the direction he did and make that task. I've long been saying we need to better understand where we are with our reliability of supply. Because when the day comes and it's cold out here and we don't have it, you're going to have people picking up their telephone and screaming at me as chairman of the Energy Committee or screaming at the secretary and saying "where you guys been?" So understanding that, I think, was important.

Have you seen other signs from the agency that you like or areas you'd like to see more from Perry on?

There's aspects of reorg[anization] that are under discussion. We're going to be getting a briefing on that to better understand that. I think we're going to see that both within DOE and DOI. I certainly need to get a better handle on those aspects of it. I'm hopefully going to have an opportunity to bring the secretary up.

House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop said he's more optimistic an energy bill can get done this year since it'll focus on just energy issues. Do you share that optimism? Why do you think this year could be different?

The first reason is the same reason we stick with ANWR and we stick with King Cove: It's the right thing to do. Now it's 10 years since we've updated our energy policies, so we've got to get crackling on this. What we put in place — and what passed [S. 2012 (114)] the Senate 85-12 — is still good.

We've got to encourage our friends on the other side that it's time to do it. And I think they recognize that. I've had good conversations with Congressman [Greg] Walden and Congressman [Rob] Bishop. Congressman Bishop's retiring [in 2020], so he's kind of looking at how we shape some things then. Not to say he wasn't willing to do that before, but I think it does help to kind of crystallize some things and say, "OK, what do we want to be able to advance out of here?"

The other thing we can kind of factor into the discussion: There's a lot of infrastructure in the energy space. And I'm not saying we're going to take our energy bill and plop it into an infrastructure bill. That's not my intention at all. I want to run our bill on its own as we did before. But it's a reminder that all of the exciting stuff you want to talk about over here, we can help facilitate that through a strong energy bill. Grid modernization, perfect example there ... on the reliability side, cyber. Doing more just from the perspective of what we're doing to enhance clean energy solutions through renewables and hydro and all kinds of good stuff.

What do you think the federal government should be doing in the climate change space?

I think that there is much that can be done to address some of the issues that we face with climate change that can be addressed through investments that we're making. When you upgrade your pipelines so you don't have methane emissions out of your gathering lines, you don't have seepage — you might not think of it in the perspective of is this a climate change policy — but are we making incremental gains in that way. And certainly many of the things that we would include in our energy bill really go to the heart of how we're able to address the issue of carbon and carbon emissions. I think that's kind of, in my view, the first easy step that doesn't have a big label on it.

And I have to acknowledge: I'm dealing with an administration where some in the administration get really squeamish about anything that has the word climate in it. I'm not afraid to talk about that. I'm not afraid to bring anybody up to my state and show them the impacts we're seeing — whether it is to our runways, our coastal communities or to take them out in the interior and show them the impacts of additional fires that we haven't seen. I want to help facilitate a conversation that is constructive about this, not get people in lines on either side and say, "you're the neanderthal in the room."

Does it concern you to hear members of the administration deny the basic science of the problem?

I am not going to lose a lot of hours in my day worrying about how they choose to speak about it. What I want to try to guide them to is a recognition that [of the benefit of having] a no-harm policy, if you will. In other words, we go ahead and make this investment, and even if all the climate proponents are wrong, this investment would still have been a smart and sound investment. I truly believe that we should be leading the world when it comes to our advances in technologies that push us to a cleaner and more efficient and less wasteful society. And right now we're not doing that. And I think we need to put ourselves more in the front seat. And I think that there are certainly policies that we need to be looking at and I'm looking at them.

By:  Anthony Adragna
Source: Politico Pro