Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski was one of four Republican senators to cross party lines last year to vote for President Joe Biden’s activist pick to lead the Department of the Interior, New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland. More than 13 months after Haaland’s confirmation, Alaskans are paying the price for Murkowski’s approval.
In her press release for the confirmation, Murkowski expressed buyer’s remorse for having voted in 2013 to confirm President Barack Obama’s former Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who shut down plans for construction of a road to serve the residents of isolated King Cove nine years ago.
“I voted for a Secretary who promised to be a good partner for Alaska, but proved to be anything but that after confirmation,” Murkowski said, “so I struggled with this vote.” One year later, it’s clear Murkowski made the same mistake.
Murkowski’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Last week, Haaland finally followed through on a promise extracted during the confirmation process to visit the residents of the southwest Alaskan village of King Cove who have pled for years to build a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge. The proposed 12-mile road would connect the isolated village to the community at Cold Bay, where an all-weather airport offers year-round emergency service. The road, however, has faced decades of stiff opposition from Democrats who have sought to preserve the entire state as a kind of grand national park, protected from any further development.
“Sally Jewell made a horrible decision eight years ago, and it is the good people of King Cove who have paid the price,” Murkowski said in December to mark the anniversary of the road’s rejection, highlighting the 157 medevacs since then. “It is simply unconscionable that the federal government has failed to protect these Alaskans’ health and safety, especially in the midst of a global pandemic that has made emergency medical access all the more critical.”
Haaland, however, departed King Cove with no hints of approval. One complicating factor is a land swap agreement the Trump administration sought to clear a pathway for construction of the road, which a federal judge struck down.
“I can say that I’m still in a learning process at the moment, and I don’t have anything else to announce today about that decision,” Haaland told reporters on Thursday after touring the area with Murkowski and Alaska Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
It was far from the only time Murkowski’s vote has failed Alaskans.
Haaland Keeps Oil and Gas in the Ground
Upon completing her first trip to Alaska, Secretary Haaland left with a “parting gift” of more Washington restrictions, declaring that millions more acres that were once open to oil and gas exploration would be locked under environmental regulation.
On Monday, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, which is now run by an ecoterrorist, announced it would reverse Trump-era efforts to expand oil and gas operations in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, shutting off 7 million acres from development despite today’s urgent need to drill.
The decision frustrated Murkowski, who’s made Arctic oil and gas exploration a top priority of her time in the upper chamber.
“We need more domestic resource development, and areas explicitly designed for that purpose should be at the top of the list, not the chopping block,” Murkowski said in a press release. “It is simply shocking that the Biden administration can look at the world, and decide that Alaska is where ‘keep it in the ground’ should apply.”
At this point, however, the announcement should come as no surprise. In October, the Biden administration decided to let stand a judge’s ruling to strip permits for the Willow Project in the same reserve. Approved under President Donald Trump in 2020, the 30-year plan from ConocoPhillips to develop five drilling sites would have been the largest single extraction project on federal land.
Soon after his inauguration, Biden also canceled leases and restored protections in the neighboring Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, choking off 4-12 billion barrels of oil under the frozen tundra, according to estimates from the U.S. Geological Survey. The Interior Department under Haaland subsequently announced further environmental reviews despite their prior completion under the National Environmental Policy Act, long held as the gold standard for assessing environmental effects.
Democrats want to make reinstated restrictions permanent for the refuge, which was opened for drilling under the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The portion of the tax bill that gave the green light for drilling in a small stretch of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was authored by Murkowski, whose vote for Haaland has now killed it.
No Development in the Tongass National Forest
Murkowski has long lobbied for a “complete exemption” from the Roadless Rule for the Tongass National Forest, but Haaland has come out on top in this fight too.
The Trump-era Alaska Roadless Rule, passed in the final days of his administration, exempted the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska from a Clinton-era prohibition on “road construction, road reconstruction, and timber harvesting.” The Biden administration, however, reversed Trump’s decision and reinstated protections to cover the more than 9-million-acre national forest, the largest in the country.
Although managed by the U.S. Forest Service under the Department of Agriculture, the resource conflict over Tongass highlights another area where Murkowski has failed to elicit Democratic concessions in Washington despite her efforts at bipartisan compromise.
Murkowski’s Political Blowback
Murkowski’s support for Haaland played a major role in the Alaska Republican Party’s vote in March last year to censure the senator and pledge an endorsement of a primary opponent. Kelly Tshibaka, a former commissioner in the Alaska Department of Administration, jumped into the race two weeks later, aiming to unseat Murkowski in the August primary.
“Haaland’s visit should serve as a reminder that she would not be the Interior secretary without Murkowski’s tie-breaking committee vote to advance her nomination to final confirmation,” Tshibaka told The Federalist. “Everyone should be clear on exactly why Deb Haaland has chosen this moment to visit Alaska: She’s been dispatched by President Joe Biden to try to provide cover for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who has been the chief enabler of the Biden administration, which has targeted Alaska’s economy for destruction since his very first day in office.”
Pressed in February on whether she would change her vote on Haaland given the chance, Murkowski couldn’t provide a straight answer.
“I’d like to change her mind on the decisions that [Haaland] has made that have negatively impacted the state of Alaska,” Murkowski told state lawmakers. “Whether it’s with regards to the [National Petroleum Reserve], or in regards to what we’re seeing with yet another pause on oil and gas. I’m planning on changing her mind.”
The incumbent senator, who is running for re-election to a fourth full term this year, scapegoated Biden, not Haaland, for the Interior Department’s aversion to Alaskan development.
“Deb Haaland is perhaps not the mastermind behind much of this,” she said at the state capitol. “Even if we could do a do-over on Deb Haaland, I don’t believe for a minute we would be in a much better position.”
Maybe not, but when asked how a Republican Senate could be effective under this administration, GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had a better answer.
“Biden ran as a moderate,” McConnell said on Fox News Sunday earlier this month. “If I’m the majority leader in the Senate, and [House Minority Leader] Kevin McCarthy is speaker of the House, we’ll make sure Joe Biden is a moderate.”
Instead of applying pressure to pick a centrist nominee, Murkowski opted to bless a nominee whose radical record was clear from her one term in Congress in hopes of getting concessions, none of which have come to pass.
Haaland protested the Trump administration’s plans to lift restrictions on the Tongass National Forest months before her nomination, drew praise as a “champion” of the Green New Deal from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., by advocating for rapid decarbonization of the American economy, and proclaimed she was “wholeheartedly against fracking and drilling on public lands” prior to her confirmation. But Murkowski says Haaland isn’t the “mastermind” behind the Biden climate agenda?
The administration has only doubled down on its animosity toward domestic energy production, to Alaska’s detriment, as energy prices soar to record levels in the Biden economy. Earlier this month, Haaland’s Interior Department announced oil and gas leases would resume only to comply with a court order, offering only 20 percent of what was initially nominated for sale, complemented by a 50 percent spike in royalty fees.
Murkowski might have been hoping for favors in return for her vote on Haaland. All Alaskans got, though, were more restrictions and higher taxes.