Murkowski Foresees Accord, But Sparks Fly at First Hearing

Sen. Lisa Murkowski held her first hearing as chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee today . The committee promptly passed the first priority of the Republican leadership: a bill approving the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta, Canada through Nebraska. Murkowski also outlined what she wants the committee to accomplish.

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She says her priorities are outlined in a 2013 document she produced called Energy 2020.

“You’ve got 115 pages but I’ll distill it to one bumper sticker for you: Energy is good. Energy is good,” she told the committee in her opening statement. “It’s vital to our prosperity. It’s a strategic asset we can use to assist our allies. I believe it’s in our interest to continue making our energy abundant, affordable, clean, diverse and secure.”

Murkowski says she’ll continue to emphasize the importance of the Arctic and to remind senators that the U.S, because of Alaska, is an Arctic nation. But she made it clear that, as chair, her focus will go beyond home-state issues.

“I’m pretty passionate about Alaska. I’m very passionate about my state. But Alaska will not be my only priority,” she said.

She gave a shout-out to nuclear waste policy, electric grid innovation and off-shore oil development. She announced plans for a national energy bill focused on supply, infrastructure, efficiency and accountability. She told committee members she’ll talk to each of them to hear their priorities. And she reached across the aisle.

“I’m optimistic. We’re going to find common ground,” she said. “We’re going to find that common ground as a starting point.”

Then, as Republican leaders have been promising for weeks, she took up the Keystone bill.  With that, the Kumbaya spirit left the building.

Republicans on the committee describe the pipeline as common sense, part of a network to move oil efficiently across North America. Democrats, though, have their line in the coal sands on this. They say Keystone aggravates fossil fuel dependence and global warming. Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont says senators will have to answer to their grandchildren for their stance.

“They’re going to be asking us, what were you guys thinking about? What were you doing? Did you not hear what the scientific community all over the world was saying, that climate change is, in fact, the most serious environmental crisis facing this planet?” Sanders asked.

Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren, brand new to the committee, took an anti-corporate angle.

“Who does this new Republican Congress work for? Foreign oil companies or the American people?” she asked. ‘Today their first priority is to advance a pipeline that means a whole lot to an army of well paid lobbyists and a whole lot to a giant foreign oil company.”

Only Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia crossed party lines to vote for the bill.

Let me make no mistake about it: This line is already 40 percent constructed. The line will be built, sooner or later,” Manchin said. “We’re just delaying the inevitable.”

The bill passed the committee 13-9. The full Senate is scheduled to begin debate on it Monday.

Bruce Oppenheimer, a professor at Vanderbilt University, has researched Congressional process and the making of energy policy. He says Murkowski, as chair of the committee, gets to set her own agenda. (In part, he says, that’s because senators serve on so many committees they don’t have time to interfere with what a chairman wants.) Oppenheimer doesn’t read too much into the fact that her first bill is from the Republican leadership’s to-do list.

“Any chair of the Energy committee at this point who was a Republican would be having hearings on Keystone XL pipeline to try and show that they’re going to try to get things done now that they’re the majority party,” he said.  “I don’t think this necessarily foreshadows that she won’t have independence or a good deal of autonomy as chair of that committee.”

Not that she’d be successful in something like opening the Arctic Refuge to oil drilling, Oppenheimer says. He says political conditions aren’t ripe for that. When it comes to winning home-state prizes, the professor says that’s easier to achieve with the public land matters under the committee’s jurisdiction. Among those, Murkowski says she wants to work on reforming forest management, boosting national timber harvests and improving wildfire policy.

Video: Murkowski used a Tsimshian mallet to gavel in.


Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her Read more about Lizhere.

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