U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska says the upcoming Senate vote on drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is now a "toss-up," thanks to the support of key labor unions.
Murkowski, in a Juneau news conference Thursday, said that although the ANWR debate has delayed his decision on whether to run for governor, he will make it quickly once the issue is resolved this fall.
The 20-year Republican senator also talked with reporters about subsistence and cruise ships.
Murkowski, former chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, didn't offer a Senate head count on ANWR, although he has said he expects committee approval of drilling. The key, as it was in the House, could be lobbying by the Teamsters and other unions, he said.
"From the standpoint of the Democrats, who traditionally have enjoyed a good deal of environmental and labor support, labor leaves and says, 'We're going to support candidates that support jobs,'" he said.
"Majority Leader Tom Daschle, I think, is going to have to evaluate whether this is going to be put together as a Democratic party issue or allow members to make their decisions as they see fit. ... Labor is a force to be reckoned with."
Prospects for ANWR were "questionable" before the House vote in July, but House passage has created momentum, Murkowski said. So he said it would be a distraction to announce a gubernatorial campaign in September.
"This is where the concentration has to be," Murkowski said of ANWR. "It's going to take some heavy lifting."
Although he's "leaning" toward the race, in which some pollsters suggest he would be unbeatable, Murkowski took a low-key approach when asked about issues that have been controversial in state government.
He said he won't attend Gov. Tony Knowles' summit on subsistence next week, and he didn't offer much encouragement about amending the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which conflicts with the state constitution by mandating a rural priority for fish and game.
"We've always cautioned about amending ANILCA because of the reality that once you get into that, it's awful hard to control, particularly in a Democratic-controlled Senate," Murkowski said.
The senator also said that he didn't object to recent state legislation on cruise ship pollution, which Knowles pushed soon after Murkowski had enacted some wastewater discharge standards in federal law.
"We're going to take a look at the federal legislation and see if it needs any tinkering and so forth," Murkowski said. "Hindsight might have suggested that the state (wait to) see how the federal legislation worked, but they chose not to, and that's fine. You're getting it for free from the feds."
Bill McAllister can be reached at email@example.com. For in-depth Empire articles on ANWR, see "Refuge of Riches" at www.juneauempire.com.