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Murkowski: Energy is top concern

Alaskans encouraged to educate feds on state's unique challenges, opportunities

Posted: February 24, 2012 - 1:08am
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Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski finishes her annual speech to a joint session of the Alaska Legislature in the House Chambers in Juneau on Thursday.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski finishes her annual speech to a joint session of the Alaska Legislature in the House Chambers in Juneau on Thursday.

“Energy is going to kill us if we don't get a hold of it,” U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said to a combined state House and Senate floor session Thursday.

Murkowski swung through Juneau on Thursday, with meetings and speeches throughout the day.

In the morning the senator spoke to the Legislature in her annual address. At noon, she discussed economic issues at the Chamber of Commerce lunch.

In both addresses, Murkowski brought up energy often, calling it the “No. 1 issue across the state.”

Energy affects all other issues in the state, she said.

The strength of the U.S. military could be in jeopardy because of high fuel costs, Murkowski said. She said she believes the Air Force decision to move an F-16 fighter squadron from Eielson Air Force Base to Anchorage’s Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson was based on cost cutting and not military strategy.

Federal transportation dollars to Alaska are shrinking and other sectors have been cut, Murkowski said, due to rising fuel prices.

“It's expensive to do business in Alaska.” Murkowski said, “Energy is our Achilles heal.”

However, she said, Southeast Alaska has a wealth of energy resources it can develop. She praised the state’s Renewable Energy Fund and its stimulus for developing the energy resources of the future.

“Let’s get projects going. I want a wave project off Yakutat,” she said.

Developing Southeast’s vast power potential will cost, Murkowski said. But, she said, the state needs the basic infrastructure other states received over the past 150 years.

But to get the demand to develop those projects, Murkowski said Southeast Alaska needs its renewable energy generation made available to utilities and customers down the Pacific Coast — an intertie with British Columbia she called the “green pipeline.” Funding for such a project would be hard to find in the current federal budget, she said. She suggested the possibility of transferring profits from oil and gas development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge into Alaska’s renewables fund.

Murkowski said Alaskans need to educate federal agencies and decision-makers about the unique challenges and opportunities of living and working in the Arctic state. She gave the example of the federal government’s view that hydroelectric power is non-renewable.

Murkowski said most people think of the Hoover Dam when thinking hydro power. Southeast hydroelectric facilities predominantly use lake tap technology, which uses small dams, if any, and typically cause less damage to anadromous streams and rivers. Southeast, she said, also doesn’t have to worry about depleting its water supply.

“Anybody that would suggest that water is not renewable just does not live in Southeast Alaska,” Murkowski said. So it is not eligible for certain tax credits and “some of the policies and proposal that have helped build out a nascent renewable industry in this nation.”

She talked about the “chaos” in Washington, D.C. She said the nation is divided.

“Alaska is different,” Murkowski said. “Whether pioneers or recent arrivals, we are joined together by our choice to live here...together. Alaska is what we make of it.”

She said it was this kind of teamwork that allows “big miracles” like the emergency fuel delivery to Nome this winter.

“Pulling everybody together like that was really a miracle," Murkowski said. "We did a darn good job."

Murkowski said she approves of tackling the federal deficit and debt by cutting federal spending.

“Cutting spending is a national imperative,” Murkowski said, and “Alaska is going to take a hit."

Murkowski urged construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and segued the troubles of that pipeline to those of Alaska’s pipeline, which she called underutilized.

Murkowski said the nation needs to fully appreciate the need to explore for more oil in Alaska to take full advantage of the state’s current pipeline, which currently moves a fraction of the oil it did in its most productive stages.

"It is an urgent need," Murkowski said.

The senator spoke specifically about exploration and development of expected oil fields in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR.

This year, for 12th time, Rep. Don Young has pushed an ANWR bill in Congress. Murkowski said she was pessimistic that the bill would pass the Senate this year. She said opening the refuge will take a supportive administration in Washington or the occurrence of some calamity that shows “we should have opened ANWR years ago,” she said. “I will not give up until it succeeds, it must happen. It is simply too important to this state and too important to this nation.”

The transfer of air quality from the purview of the Environmental Protection Agency to the U.S. Interior Department could help promote offshore exploration and development. Interior, she said, has a mandate to move offshore oil and gas projects. However, litigation is still to be expected, she said.

“We are not leading in the Arctic,” Murkowski warned. “Back in Washington, D.C. no one understands that.” Alaska needs ice breakers and military leaders are in agreement they are an imperative to the country, she said.

"There is such an interest that is at stake, we have to broaden the advocacy," Murkowski said.

President Barack Obama allocated $8 million in his current budget for icebreaker design, Murkowski said. "Eight million dollars doesn't get you the...porthole," she said. “It’s almost an embarrassment that we are an Arctic state and we don't have an Arctic-class icebreaker.” Russia, she points out, has 33 ice breakers.

Murkowski said Alaska’s Legislature shows solidarity that is noticed in Washington, D.C.

"I see it from afar," Murkowski said. Whether resource development, supporting U.S. soldiers, or fighting federal overreach, that solidarity, Murkowski said, makes her work more effective.

Whether Alaskans want to change the federal status of hydroelectric power or convince the feds to fund ice-breakers or to protect the state’s military bases, Murkowski said all Alaskans need to educate federal agencies and decision-makers, who may not grasp the scale and complexities of Alaska.

“We are at our best when we coordinate efforts," Murkowski said.

Murkowski responded emotionally to a question by state Sen. Lesil McGuire about the controversy surrounding the trial of former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens.

"It was a travesty," Murkowski said. “This case demonstrates how clearly we need changes. We are going to try to right the wrong," she said.

On the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, Murkowski said she wants it reversed.

"It takes away the concept of one person, one vote. The result of this decision takes us so far back, we have to address it,” Murkowski said. She did admit to being the benefactor of a Super PAC in 2010. Super PACs have expanded their role in the financing the 2012 campaigns, in large part due to the Citizens United decision that allowed unlimited contributions to the political advocacy organizations.

“I stood to gain from that,” she said. “However, it is only appropriate that Alaskans and Americans know where the money comes from.”

Murkowski said she often asks Alaska business owners what Washington, D.C. can do to help their industry. The answer often is “get out of the way,” she said to applause from the Chamber members. “We are fully capable.”

One difficulty faced by entrepreneurs in Alaska is the state’s relative paucity of private lands. Currently 98 percent of the state is comprised of federal land, Murkowski said. She said she showed Obama a map of Alaska with all the federally-owned land overlaid.

“‘Well, how do you make it work,’” Murkowski said Obama asked. “Bingo,” she said to the Chamber.

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

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