ANCHORAGE - U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski soon will relinquish his role as head of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and hand the reigns to a senator opposed to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
But the Alaska Republican is not ready to accept defeat.
"We're not through with ANWR," Murkowski told reporters Tuesday at his Anchorage office. "This is what is right for America."
Sen. Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, is poised to become Senate majority leader following Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords' announcement last week that he's leaving the Republicans and aligning himself with Democrats. The move shifted control of the Senate from the GOP to the Democrats.
Over the weekend Daschle called ANWR a "dead" issue.
"I think that is a misstatement," Murkowski said. "Clearly there are a lot of misstatements out there."
Daschle does not understand what it will take to pull America out of the energy crisis, Murkowski said. "You just can't conserve your way out of this," he said.
But he said the problem may become clearer if the price of a gallon of gas continues to rise and the political situation in the Middle East remains unstable.
Murkowski expects his last day as committee chairman to be June 5. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, will take over as chairman. In March, Murkowski accompanied Bingaman and Interior Secretary Gale Norton to ANWR and the North Slope. During the visit, Norton reiterated her support for drilling in ANWR but Bingaman was unswayed.
"He has a little bit of a different philosophy about energy," Murkowski said.
Former state Sen. Al Adams, a Democrat from Kotzebue, and fellow Inupiat Eskimo Tara Sweeney are helping increase support, particularly in the South, for drilling in ANWR, the senator said.
Murkowski handed out an editorial that ran May 15 in The Atlanta Journal and Constitution attacking environmental groups opposed to drilling. "They claim the area is pristine; that exploration would threaten the land and the caribou herd, and that the Natives oppose it. None of this is true, the Inupiat Eskimos say. And they should know," the editorial read.
It remains hard to convince lawmakers in Congress from the Northeast that drilling in ANWR is preferable to places where the United States has no say in environmental protections, Murkowski said.