The Biden Administration Needs Lisa Murkowski

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Late Monday, Politico reported that Senator Lisa Murkowski, one of a handful of Republicans in the chamber who can be counted on in close confirmation votes, nixed the Biden administration’s desired nominee for deputy secretary of the Interior Department. The nominee, Elizabeth Klein, the deputy director of the State Energy and Environmental Impact Center at the New York University School of Law, was shot down by Murkowski due to Klein’s progressive policy positions on climate and environmental issues, per Politico, particularly as they relate to the potential for extractive development in Murkowski’s home state of Alaska. The decision arrived less than two weeks after the Republican senator cast a crucial vote in favor of the White House’s pick for interior secretary, Deb Haaland, a Laguna Pueblo citizen who became the first tribal citizen nominated and approved for a Cabinet position. 

Typically, any dissonance found in these kinds of decisions can be attributed to the Beltway’s standard brand of horse-trading politics. For instance, it would be fair to read Politico’s reporting and wonder if the Klein rejection was part of a preordained deal between Murkowski and the White House, wherein she would approve Haaland’s nomination in exchange for being able to publicly block another Interior-related progressive pick. But Murkowski’s approval of Haaland and rejection of Klein also speaks to a broader issue the Biden administration has encountered in its initial months. As the administration has staked out its goals on tribal consultation, climate policy, economic stability, and energy production, it’s already apparent that Alaska’s versions of these debates rarely fit into neat partisan boxes. 

In the case of the Klein and Haaland nominations, the Biden administration is clearly seeking to please one of the few Republican allies it has in the Senate. Until the Democratic Party reclaimed a majority following the Georgia runoff races, Murkowski chaired the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, a position now held by Senator Joe Manchin. When Haaland came before the committee, Republican members like John Barrasso criticized her as being too “radical” to lead the Interior—a humorous claim given that David Bernhardt and Ryan Zinke, the two interior secretaries appointed by the Trump administration, gutted the department while orchestrating one of the largest fire sales of public lands in modern history. But ultimately, Haaland narrowly advanced out of the committee vote, thanks in large part to Murkowski’s decision (following well-publicized hemming and hawing) to cross the aisle. Haaland then sailed through the full-chamber vote. 

Murkowski’s vote for Haaland could have been a leverage play to secure sway over future legislation. But it was also a recognition of and response to Murkowski’s dependency on the Alaska Native vote. In 2010, Alaska Native voters famously buoyed Murkowski’s electoral hopes after a primary loss forced her to mount a write-in campaign. Since then, Murkowski has been one of the staunchest champions for both Alaska Native and broader Indian Country issues in the Senate. 

Haaland’s nomination received support from both conservative and liberal tribal citizens across the country; tribal nations in red states, like the Catawba Nation in South Carolina, formally requested that their senators vote in favor of seating Haaland. Klein, who also served on the Biden-Harris transition team, had no such ties or widespread support in Indian Country, and thus her potential nomination (she had not yet been formally nominated by the White House) was an easy one for Murkowski to target. However, the same political issue that loomed over both Politico’s report and Haaland’s hearings—the continued use of Alaskan lands for fossil fuel production—will only get thornier from here.  

One of President Joe Biden’s early decisions was to place a temporary pause on gas and oil drilling leases on public lands. The decision, levied by way of executive order, was loudly decried by the gas and oil industry and conservative public officials as being harmful to local economies. That executive order was the single most discussed topic throughout Haaland’s confirmation process, aside from the historic nature of her nomination—Murkowski specifically mentioned the order during her allotted committee time to question Haaland. 

It should come as little surprise that extractive operations remain an active part of most any national discussion of Alaska politics given their outsize presence in the state. (Alaska trails only Texas and Pennsylvania, in terms of annual natural gas withdrawals.) And in these debates, it’s impossible to avoid the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, issue. Found in the northeastern part of the state, the refuge, which Trump opened for drilling during his final weeks in office, spans over 19 million acres and crosses the United States-Canada border. As the single-largest area of preserved wilderness in America, the refuge includes the migratory path for a regional species of caribou, which has been centrally featured as part of Biden’s effort to work with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to co-manage the land area. 

Protecting the ANWR has been a priority for Biden from day one. Hours after his inauguration, and days before his public lands drilling pause, Biden signed an executive order placing a moratorium on extraction efforts in the ANWR. 

What’s often overlooked in ANWR coverage is that the land is also home to the Kaktovik Village, one of Alaska’s 231 federally recognized tribes. Unlike the reservation system operated by the tribal nations of the Lower 48, Alaska Native villages exercise their legal sovereignty through entities that are known as Alaska Native Corporations. (You can read more about the history and modern impacts of ANCs here.) And in the five decades since their creation, ANCs have, broadly speaking, centered their economic development around the extraction and production of fossil fuels. 

The case of the Kaktovik Village may prove to be one of the Biden administration’s defining challenges. Another of Biden’s executive orders in his first week instructed federal agencies to adequately update and follow the federal guidelines concerning tribal consultation—a process in which a tribal nation is formally informed of any future projects on its lands. Speaking with news site KTOO three weeks ago, Kaktovik Village president Eddie Rexford Sr. said that the village was not consulted prior to Biden’s executive order regarding the ANWR. (The village’s ANC, the Kaktovik Iñupiat Corporation, was informed by the Interior in February that it had missed a deadline to survey a proposed drilling area for polar bear dens; the corporation responded by claiming the National Fish and Wildlife Service failed to communicate with the ANC throughout the process.)

 “We certainly like to protect our homelands also, but we want to utilize the natural resources that our creator provided to us,” Rexford told KTOO. “Oil and gas, so we can use the natural gas to get away from using diesel.”  

This is only a fraction of the Alaskan puzzle the Biden administration will have to solve in the coming months and years. To pass many of its desired legislative goals through the Senate, the White House will have to please Murkowski. And pleasing Murkowski will often also mean pleasing Alaska Native voters. As displayed by the Kaktovik matter, that will involve more nuanced work than American administrations are used to doing in Indian Country. For now, at least, the administration has Haaland atop the Interior and the Republican senator on its side. That’s a start. 

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