There are valid arguments that it is in the country's interest to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, but politics is keeping just enough members of the U.S. Senate from supporting the idea with their votes to prevent it from happening, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkow-ski said Wed-nesday in Kenai.
Speaking before a packed room at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Murkowski said ANWR probably won't happen this year. There simply aren't enough votes.
"I say that with a great deal of angst," she said.
She told the audience that she has had senators from other states "look me straight in the eye" and tell her opening ANWR wins on the merits, but that they could not be with her on a vote.
"ANWR is like a religion back East," she said. In fact, it likely is the best-known national refuge in the country. "The entire country knows what ANWR is."
An effort in the Senate to include ANWR in the 2004 federal budget bill failed by two votes. The House was successful in keeping it in an energy bill, but Murkowski has doubts about it surviving in the Senate. The energy bill also includes measures necessary to further a natural gas pipeline.
"If it is in the energy bill (when it gets to the Senate), I can guarantee you it will kill the energy bill," she said.
It is likely ANWR would be stripped from the bill in committee in order to get the gas pipeline.
"I hate say it's an either/or," she said, promising to continue efforts to push ANWR.
As to the proposed gas pipeline, Murkowski called it the best method for jump-starting the Alaska economy and providing energy the Lower 48 desperately needs. She also said construction should include a spur to the peninsula and that Alaskans should make sure their gas needs are met, but that would take keeping that message before Congress. The 3,500-mile pipeline to bring Alaska gas to the Lower 48 would be the biggest construction project the country has seen.
"In terms of jobs to Alaskans, it would be the best thing we could do," she said, adding that the highest estimates she's heard predict up to 900,000 new jobs nationwide if the pipeline is built.
"Let's be pessimistic and say only 450,000. That's huge," she said. "We are doing our best to encourage not only members of Congress, but the president and the public that this project is significant for America and essential for Alaska."
She said the House energy bill includes provisions for price incentives that would insure investors against major loss should the price of gas dip too low to allow recovery of their investments. She said the incentives were critical, but doubted the price -- by the time the gas would come on line -- would ever fall too low.
She also noted that some states whose senators supported opening ANWR may be reluctant when it comes to supporting a gas line, because of concerns that Alaska gas could supplant their states' gas on the market. She pointed to Oklahoma and Louisiana specifically.
"Alaska's gas is not a threat to Oklahoma's gas, to Louisiana's gas," she said.
As for a spur to Cook Inlet, she said, "We should not do anything to foreclose options in terms of access to natural resources." She added a caveat, however. She said she does not support the so-called "over-the-top" route through Canada.
A pipeline, she said, could cost $20 billion.
Murkowski said she is working hard for Alaskans in Washington, D.C., and is learning fast. She told the crowd she is inundated with input from constituents, including some who are taking advantage of events like spring break -- or just acting on a desire to get away from winter -- and visiting her office to lobby for their issues. But she said nothing compares to face-to-face meetings here on the peninsula where she can see and hear first hand what the community needs.
She said she spent time earlier in the day visiting a fourth grade classroom at Mountain View Elementary School in Kenai fielding questions from the youngsters. She said she got better questions there than she sometimes does from journalists, including what she, as a senator, could do for the Kenai Peninsula.
"They had their notebooks out, they had their questions," she said.
She also met with elected officials from the borough, and from Homer, Seward, Kenai and Soldotna.
"It was a chance to try and get a sense as to what the priorities are, what the needs are in this area," she said. "I look forward to helping you with issues as specific as funding for the Challenger Center and as general as how we deal with some of our transportation needs."
She said her office has been asked to assist in finding funding for 104 peninsula projects.
But she also said the peninsula's needs aren't the only ones hitting her office. Communities all over the state have similar needs.
When it comes to things like transportation, Murkowski said there are many people Outside who view Alaska from a different perspective and may oppose opening wilderness areas with roads.
"They are suggesting that because we have run out of room to move in a state like New Jersey or Delaware or the like, that we need to have more wilderness, we need to have more refuge, and the best place to do that is in Alaska," she said. "And if you have roads, you are taking away from the opportunity to have wilderness and refuges."
She said the Alaska delegation continually reminds other lawmakers that Alaska has 60 percent of the wilderness of the entire country.
"We need opportunities," she said. "We don't need more wilderness."
She said Alaska is in a unique position.
"There are a lot of people out there that want to protect us from
ourselves," she said.
In an interview after the luncheon, Murkowski said President George W. Bush's tax cut package isn't likely to be enacted in full. The Senate cut the president's $726 billion tax cut request in half. The House wants $550 billion in tax cuts.
"Where we hope to be at the end of the day is around $550 billion. That's where I'm coming from on the president's package," she said.
She said she supports other tax credits in the package, including ending the double taxation of dividends and increasing the childcare tax credit from $600 to $1,000.
Asked if it was the best time for a tax cut, given no one knows what the Iraq war will cost, Murkowski said there are arguments for holding off. But, she said that when the president proposed the tax cut package, America wasn't at war. The issue was the recession. She said a tax cut is still the best way to pull the country out of the recession.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly is considering a resolution asking for review of anti-terrorism legislation passed in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. Many municipalities across the country have raised issues about the constitutionality of the laws, saying they invade privacy and curtail constitutional rights.
Murkowski said the country was reacting to something unprecedented, but those laws should be reviewed.
"I think it is absolutely appropriate that we continually re-examine them," she said. "We need to be sure that our response is still legitimate, still appropriate. There is a balance that needs to be had here to providing the necessary security for Americans within our borders. But we can't push beyond what is appropriate. We have to respect the civil liberties that we have. This is what we fight for."
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