With Alaska poised to become the next frontier in offshore drilling this summer, the state’s two senators, Republican Lisa Murkowski and Democrat Mark Begich, find themselves in agreement.
It’s an encouraging setting for companies hoping to drill in the Arctic Ocean, but a gloomy prospect for environmentalists concerned about the risks of moving too rapidly toward oil and gas exploration in the harsh conditions off the north coast of Alaska.
As the Obama administration has issued permits for Royal Dutch Shell’s plans to drill in the Arctic’s Chukchi and Beaufort seas, Murkowski and Begich have energetically lauded each approval.
The motivation is clear: New energy development offers tremendous economic promise to Alaska. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Arctic holds up to 25 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas resources. And a recent study by Northern Economics, Alaska’s largest economic consulting firm, and the University of Alaska predicted that drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort could create an average of 54,700 jobs a year.
The study found that drilling on Alaska’s Outer Continental Shelf could make the state the eighth-largest oil resource province in the world, ahead of Nigeria, Libya, Russia, and Norway.
“I can’t overstate the potential that Alaska offshore offers,” Murkowski told National Journal Daily. “This is the opportunity for us to fill up our oil pipeline and see true economic growth within our state.”
Despite the worries of environmentalists and the harm the Exxon Valdez oil spill caused in the state, Murkowski said she is not too concerned about a spill: “I recognize that we must have a redundancy of safety measures in place to handle anything that should occur, but I think that Shell has taken the steps necessary.”
Both Murkowski and Begich repeatedly cite drilling that took place in the Arctic in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “The fact is—a lot of people forget this,” Begich said in an interview. “We did exploration in the Arctic.... Did you ever hear about an oil spill? No. I feel pretty confident where we are.”
In an address to the state Legislature this year, Begich spoke at length about the coming renaissance of Alaska’s oil and gas industry, detailing the job opportunities and economic benefits of Arctic development for the state.
In addition to coming together on Alaska drilling, Murkowski and Begich have been in lockstep on other energy issues as well.
Murkowski came to the Senate in 2002, when her father, then-Gov. Frank Murkowski, appointed her to fill the vacancy left by his own resignation. She earned her own full term in 2004, becoming the first woman elected to Congress from Alaska.
In 2010, Murkowski lost the GOP primary to tea party-backed Joe Miller, but after launching an aggressive write-in campaign, she came back to the win the general election. Ever since her return, her voting record has been more moderate than that of her Republican colleagues; in National Journal’s 2011 vote ratings, Murkowski ranked among the members closest to the ideological center of the Senate.
But while the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has been known to compromise on energy legislation with the committee’s chairman, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., she has simultaneously been critical of the Obama administration’s decision on the Keystone XL pipeline and the Interior Department’s five-year offshore-drilling plan.
For his part, Begich himself has often toed the line on energy issues. He has repeatedly voted with Republicans against efforts to repeal tax breaks for the oil and gas industry and has been vocally supportive of the Keystone pipeline. Together the two lawmakers have forged a unique coalition that they say has strengthened their efforts on issues such as Arctic drilling.
“There’s not too much daylight within the delegation,” Murkowski said.
“I think what we have been able to do is show bipartisan support and make things happen,” Begich added.
Their united front on energy is reflected by campaign contributions from oil and gas companies. Begich, who was elected in 2008, has received more than $150,000 from the industry in the past four years, while Murkowski has taken in more than $500,000 in oil and gas industry money over the course of her career, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Peter Van Tuyn, an environmental attorney based in Anchorage, said that “both Murkowski and Begich are seen as boosters of the oil industry and resource development” back in Alaska. But he notes that this isn’t surprising.
“Alaska has such a reliance on resource development—over 80 percent of our annual budget comes from oil development and transportation—that when it comes to energy, Republicans and Democrats are very similar,” Van Tuyn said.
“You don’t get elected statewide in Alaska unless you are pro-drilling whether you are a Republican or Democrat,” added Marilyn Heiman, director of the Arctic program at the Pew Environment Group.
This article appears in the April 18, 2012, edition of NJ Daily.