Top Republican unveils broad energy blueprint

A top Senate Republican on Monday unveiled a broad energy policy blueprint with some 200 recommendations for her fellow lawmakers, including plans for expanding offshore oil drilling and steering revenue from the work to research into alternative power technologies.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she hopes the framework provides the foundation for new, bipartisan energy legislation, after years of a “muddled” approach.

“What I am trying to do is figure out how we get moving on some energy policy for our country at a time when our energy policy is muddled up,” Murkowski said, adding that lawmakers must move away from an energy policy “focused on scarcity to one that’s focused on abundance and what that means for this nation.”

As the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Murkowski has a big platform to promote her vision, which was formally outlined in a 121-page glossy book, distributed to panel members and shared with panel Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore. Murkowski canvassed members of the committee for their energy ideas in assembling the broad document, which repeats many proposals she’s offered discretely before.

A staunch advocate for oil and gas, Murkowski’s blueprint offers much for the industry to love, including a proposal to open some of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain to drilling. Murkowski also recommends:

  • selling offshore oil and gas leases along the East Coast and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, where exploration currently is blocked by a statutory ban.
  • streamlining the federal permitting process for shallow-water drilling operations, a move that responds to some independent oil and gas companies’ frustrations with new requirements that they project the “worst case discharge” from offshore wells.
  • accelerating oil shale leasing and permitting in western states.
  • advancing existing research on methane hydrates, a promising source of natural gas locked in ice-like structures under the sea floor and underground. The Energy Department is already supporting research into technology to unlock energy from the crystalline structures.

To sweeten the deal, Murkowski would like to see a share of the new revenues dedicated to accelerating development of new renewable energy technologies.

But Franz Matzner, associate director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Murkowski was offering a misguided plan that “keeps us wedded to the past.”

“Sen. Murkowski’s energy blueprint for the future reads more like a cut-and-paste job from the fossil fuel industry’s playbook of the past,: Matzner said. “It relies extensively on policies and incentives for increased oil and gas drilling, while ruling out many of the policy tools most likely to reduce carbon pollution and bring cleaner energy technologies into the marketplace.”

Murkowski also recommends changes to the oil spill liability regime “to ensure that no oil spill victim ever goes uncompensated, U.S. tax dollars are never required to compensate for a spill and that operators face substantial consequences for major avoidable incidents.” The proposal responds to problems with the current approach to oil spill exposed by the Deepwater Horizon disaster, including a widely held belief that the existing $75 million cap on liability is too low.

Her plan dodges any specific approach for dealing with climate change, a top priority for some lawmakers on Capitol Hill. President Barack Obama also committed to tackling the issue during his inaugural speech. But most analysts and lawmakers concede broad climate change legislation will not advance on Capitol Hill, including measures to put a cap or tax on carbon dioxide emissions.

“Raising our energy costs, imposing the mandates and other heavy handed ideas that are out there for reducing greenhouse gas emissions — they’re not going to pass Congress,” Murkowski said. Instead, she stressed, Congress should find ways to spur energy technologies with smaller environmental footprints.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee has famously been a forum for bipartisan accords, given that energy policy tends to break along regional — not partisan — lines. Murkowski worked well with the former chairman, retired Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and a similar collegial relationship appears to be developing between Wyden and Murkowski.