How energy will steer the Alaska Senate race

How energy will steer the Alaska Senate race
© Greg Nash

In the battle for the United States Senate, all eyes are Alaska. The next 16 months promise to be the most expensive and exciting in the state’s 60-year history. Alaska’s 20-year incumbent, Republican Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - DC prepares for Saturday of festivals & Jan. 6 demonstration Republican leaders misjudged Jan. 6 committee Trump endorses GOP challenger to Upton over impeachment vote MORE faces a primary challenge from Kelly Tshibaka, who is running with the full support of former President TrumpDonald TrumpOhio Republican who voted to impeach Trump says he won't seek reelection Youngkin breaks with Trump on whether Democrats will cheat in the Virginia governor's race Trump endorses challenger in Michigan AG race MORE.

With nearly 25 years on Alaska’s Republican Party’s State Central Committee, I know how Alaskans view the policies and positional authority of our three-member congressional delegation. Having interviewed both candidates on my weekly radio program, I have seen how each candidate is approaching this campaign.

After two decades in the Senate, Murkowski has earned a reputation as a barrier-breaking, deal-making, party-crossing, legislation-passing and Alaska-first lawmaker. Even those not enamored with her left-leaning views on social issues find her incredibly knowledgeable. She has been a leader on energy and natural resources that make up the vast majority of Alaska’s annual GDP, employ over one-quarter of our private-sector workers and provide the United States with the sixth-most oil and gas output in the nation.

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After a historic write-in campaign over a tea party challenger in 2010, a near-romp in her reelection in 2016 and the newly-implemented ranked-choice voting starting in 2022, it is a mistake to ever underestimate Murkowski.

Beltway pundits cite her repeated entanglements with Trump as her greatest vulnerability, especially her vote for the former president’s impeachment. Trump has vowed to unseat her, throwing his support full behind her challenger.

Tshibaka returned to Alaska in 2019 after a decade in various jobs Washington, D.C. Since launching her campaign, she has amassed numerous Republican Party affiliate endorsements and basked in the Trump glow.

With both candidates gearing up for the long haul, it is worth noting how our state prioritizes energy and natural resource policy. Most Alaska voters support a balanced approach between environmental stewardship and responsible resource development. While environmentalists disagree, most Alaskans do not support a “wildlife above human life” philosophy. The health of the energy industry and Alaska’s economy are too inextricably linked.

That brings us to some of the other fault lines in this primary. Murkowski’s strength lies in her ability to pass significant legislation, often with a bipartisan list of supporters. From the Energy Policy Modernization Act of 2016, the opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 2017 and the omnibus and comprehensive Energy Act in 2020, Murkowski has been a stalwart champion of American energy improvements, advancements in resource technologies, supply-chain security, domestic job growth and grid modernization. During her two-year chairmanship of the Senate’s Energy and Natural Resources Committee, significant legislation became law.

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Yet, Murkowski has created vulnerability in this area of late. Last year, she dropped her support of a process-driven federal permitting endeavor by the Pebble Project, a world-class copper, gold, molybdenum and rhenium mine in southwest Alaska. While the project was still undergoing the federal environmental review she had championed for years, Murkowksi abruptly opposed the mine.

Then, she voted for several Biden appointees whose policies would hurt Alaska. Most notably, her vote to confirm Interior Secretary Deb HaalandDeb HaalandHarris in Shanksville honors heroism, courage of Flight 93 passengers Environmental groups call for immediate restoration of national monuments shrunk by Trump Interior Department posts new lease sales a week after resumption announcement MORE, a known fossil-fuel opponent, was extremely puzzling, even to Murkowski’s most loyal supporters. 

Some in Alaska have speculated that Murkowski’s backing of Haaland led the administration to advance the Willow project in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, as well as nominate Tommy Boudreaux — a former Alaskan — as deputy secretary of Interior. While helpful, those two actions do not offset the broader damage.

Haaland’s actions to unilaterally halt oil and gas development on federal lands, pause fully-executed leases in ANWR and walk back existing Public Land Orders have been met with a mixture of disdain, anger and angst by our resource development community. Murkowski has done little to assuage the anguish.

If Biden and his environmental backers continue to push resource and energy decisions that hurt Alaska, the race for U.S. Senate could hinge on much more than Trump. Alaskans will ultimately have to decide whether 20 years of energy leadership, or two years of a potential near-eclipse of Alaska’s bright energy future, is more important. Buckle in, America — this will be a fascinating race to watch.

Rick Whitbeck is the Alaska state director of Power The Future, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for American energy jobs. Whitbeck also hosts a weekly radio show in Alaska, “The Energy Hour.” Follow him on Twitter @PTFAlaska.