Murkowski’s irate; Interior nominee heard all about it

Photo: Liz Ruskin
Photo: Liz Ruskin

Murkowski, as chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has a pretty big gavel to pummel the Interior Department with. Her committee oversees that department. Nominees for high office at Interior and other departments have to clear her committee en route to Senate confirmation. This morning, with three nominees from Interior and three from Energy before her, Murkowski wasn’t shy about tying the nominees to their bosses and declaring favorites. The senator says she likes Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

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“He works with us. He listens to us. I think he deserves to have a team in place to support him,” Murkowski said. “Unfortunately, I’m not able to say the same when it comes to the secretary of the Interior.”

Murkowski homed in on Kristen Sarri, the nominee to be Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Policy, Management and Budget. Murkowski went through a list of her complaints about the department, such as: Not opening enough of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska to exploration, being slow with permits, the “heartless” denial of an emergency road for King Cove, and, most recently, the decisions on offshore Arctic leases. Murkowski says the department created a “deteriorating regulatory environment” that thwarts development and was a factor in Shell’s decision to give up on Arctic drilling.

“So if you’re an Alaskan and you’re reading the headlines, you have to wonder, what’s going on within Interior? Why do they have it out for us?” the senator said.

Sarri, who is already working in the policy office at Interior, says the department isn’t against Arctic development.

“Let me just first start by saying, really quickly, that Alaska is incredibly important obviously to energy production in this country and the safe and responsible development in the Arctic is an important part of the picture,” Sarri said.

Murkowski told her that’s not evident from the administration’s actions.

“I was not involved in either of the decisions announced on Friday,” Sarri said, referring to the cancellation of Arctic lease sales and the refusal to extend existing leases held by Shell and other companies.

Sarri says the offshore leasing decisions came from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which are in Interior but lower down the organizational chart. Murkowski pressed on, and Sarri continued to say she wasn’t responsible for the actions Murkowski objects to.

Dozens of nominations are pending in Congress. Senators sometimes hold them hostage by the fistful to extract concessions from a president. Murkowski didn’t say whether she’d block anyone.

Even if she did put a hold on Interior nominations, Sarah Binder, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, says it’s unlikely to cause the Obama Administration to reverse course. But, Binder says, by voicing her oppostion, Murkowski does plant a flag on the issue.

“She’s taking a position, right?” Binder says. “And senators get rewarded for being on the right side of issues, even if they can’t get the outcome that they want.”

A Murkowski spokesman says the senator will wait for more information before deciding how to vote on Sarri’s confirmation.



Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage.

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