Speaking at a sparsely-attended luncheon in Fairbanks, AK on Friday, Senator Murkowski (R-AL) touted her failed effort to block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions as a ‘badge of honor.’ She went on to explain why she considered the maneuver, which went down by a 53-47 margin on June 10th, a qualified success. “We made our point. Forty-seven members of the Senate said they do not want to allow the agency to set climate change policy," she said.
As luck would have it, another institution has plans to ‘set climate change policy’ in the weeks ahead — the United States Senate. And fortunately for Senator Murkowski, as a United States Senator, she has the power to influence that process as it plays out. By all indications, Senator Murkowski should be a leading Republican in these negotiations. In response to the announcement of a new Climate Science Center at the University of Alaska earlier this year, she rightly called the state ‘ground zero for climate change.’ Last September Murkowski told reporters that Congress needs to work on climate change but should take its time considering options. And by all accounts, the Senate has done just that in the past nine months, trying and giving up on a variety of approaches deemed too controversial to attract significant Republican support.
But now there are a several proposals and a handful of standalone measures on the table. A group of seventeen Senators — which includes Senator Murkowski — will be meeting with President Obama Tuesday to discuss a path forward. Majority Leader Reid has indicated he’ll be moving the legislation immediately after July recess.
If Senator Murkowski intends to play a constructive role in this process, her opportunity is now. Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Senator Murkowski, claims she intends to play such a role, citing her support of Senator Lugar’s energy legislation. According to Dillon, Murkowski supports "Sen. Lugar’s latest efforts to address climate." Perhaps sensing the angle I was pursuing, he added, "so any accusation that she opposes dealing with emissions is completely false."
But Dillon also made it clear that Murkowski remains firmly opposed to including a cap on carbon in the legislation. "There’s not 60 votes for cap and trade now nor has there ever been. A great number of Democrats remain opposed to a cap for economic reasons – concerns shared by many Republicans as well," he said. When asked how Senator Murkowski would like to see the Senate move forward on energy reform, Mr. Dillon was quite specific. "Sen. Murkowski believes the Senate should immediately focus on passing standalone oil spill compensation legislation to assist the victims of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Then it should take up the bipartisan energy bill approved by the energy committee last summer, which would address many of the president’s stated goals for a clean energy bill but would not include a cap on carbon." Curiously, he did not mention Senator Lugar’s proposal in response to this question.
The ‘bipartisan energy bill’ Dillon refers to is the American Clean Energy Leadership Act, which, as David Roberts explains, amounts to ‘a minor deviation from the awful energy status quo.’ I followed up with Mr. Dillon, asking if Senator Murkowski considers ACELA sufficient to properly address climate change. I also asked how Senator Murkowski reconciles her self-professed belief in climate change with her refusal to do anything serious to address it. While he didn’t respond to either question directly, he offered this response. "The energy bill would make a real difference in our energy policy without harming the economy. The other proposals introduced this Congress do not strike the appropriate balance between environmental and economic protection. Sen. Murkowski has done more than any other Republican to improve the nation’s energy policy. She’s passed bipartisan energy policy through the committee. But she won’t support bad legislation that threatens the economy and does nothing to improve our energy policy."
It is clear that Senator Murkowski wants the Senate to pursue an extremely limited approach on climate and energy policy. Even in the face of the worst environmental disaster in American history, her opposition to taking serious steps to reduce oil consumption remains unchanged. Senators who claim to be concerned about climate change should take steps to address it in a meaningful way. Senator Murkowski’s refusal to do so puts her credibility on the issue into question. If Senator Murkowski wants to present herself as someone who is actually concerned with addressing climate change, she’ll have to do a lot better than she has so far in her career.