For nearly two years, Sen. Lisa Murkowski played the long game on expanding drilling in Alaska: She voted for many of President Joe Biden’s key nominees. She backed several of the Democratic president’s legislative priorities. And all the while, she bent the ears of top White House officials every chance she could.
All that work has paid off — in a big way.
On Monday, the Interior Department, at Biden’s direction, announced it would move forward with a scaled-back, but still expansive, plan for energy extraction in the Alaska Republican’s home state.
The massive ConocoPhillips endeavor, called the Willow project, will at its peak produce 180,000 barrels of oil a day across 68,000 acres inside the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. Advocates say it will be an economic game changer for the state and even the nation, while environmentalists called it Biden’s single biggest climate betrayal since taking office.
Murkowski can take much of the credit for the result. In an interview with POLITICO’s E&E News on Monday afternoon, the Republican said she didn’t think it was “any great secret” that Biden was influenced, in part, by politics, as he weighed the inevitable backlash from green activists and fellow Democrats versus voters’ worries about rising energy costs and reliance on foreign oil.
“I think in terms of the president’s engagement in this, a single state project … doesn’t get elevated to the presidential level, to the senior team, unless there’s political interest,” she said.
But Murkowski also traced Biden’s decision back to the carefully orchestrated pressure and education campaign she conducted around the president and his senior team.
“When he was first was elected, I made sure that he knew — by way of letter, by way of any time I saw him — I would mention [Willow] until it became almost a bit of a joke because he knew that I was going to raise it,” Murkowski recalled. “And equally so with his senior team. I made clear that they knew.”
When it came to Willow, as Murkowski’s conversations with the administration were first getting under way in early 2021, she agreed to support Biden’s pick for Interior secretary, then-New Mexico Democratic Rep. Deb Haaland, despite her concerns about the nominee’s far-left environmental record.
Shortly thereafter, the Biden Justice Department announced it would defend Willow in court against litigation from activists alleging the ConocoPhillips project would be devastating to the environment — a seeming reversal from a president who promised, during his 2020 campaign, “no more drilling on federal lands, period.”
Then, Biden’s initial selection for deputy Interior secretary, Liz Klein, was swapped out for Tommy Beaudreau, who held a variety of posts in the Obama Interior Department. Most important for Murkowski, Beaudreau also had a reputation for being more friendly to oil and gas interests, had ties to Alaska and enjoyed a longstanding rapport with the state’s senior senator.
In fact, Murkowski was instrumental in convincing Biden to nominate him for assistant secretary instead of Klein — Murkowski and others perceived Klein as hostile to fossil fuel interests. Klein is now the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, a position Beaudreau once held himself.
Beaudreau’s nomination for the assistant secretary position, paired with the administration’s posture surrounding Willow in the courts, was a turning point for Murkowski in her dealings with the Biden Interior Department.
“Relationships matter,” she said in the interview Monday. “We worked with one another for a while, had a very respectful relationship, and so when [Beaudreau] came into the Biden administration, it was easy to sit and talk with him because we had had a good foundation previously, and so that, I think, is important.”
Murkowski said she “needed to be able to be direct and frank with” Beaudreau. On the flip side, she said, “he needed to be honest with the fact that, ‘Look, you got … a president that ran on a platform really focused on climate, who made “no new oil and gas” statements, kind of a view towards energy that was really going to be challenging and difficult for a state like Alaska,’ where we rely on resources, particularly oil resources, for revenue, for jobs, for everything.”
Through those conversations, Murkowski realized, she needed to form relationships beyond the one she had with Beaudreau if she wanted to impact policy — and secure Willow’s future. She honed in on Louisa Terrell, the White House director of legislative affairs, and Steve Ricchetti, a top Biden aide.
“Just sitting down and talking to them, one on one, with no agenda other than, ‘I’m Lisa, this is my state, let me tell you what’s important,’” Murkowski said of her approach. “Building relationships helped me as I navigated some folks who really, really were not inclined to support the Willow project.”
It also necessitated a level of dealmaking, she acknowledged: “‘Yeah, I can help you on some of the EV stuff,’” she recalled telling the White House during negotiations over the bipartisan infrastructure package, “‘but one of these days, we’re going to want to see EV ferries out there.’”
In July, Murkowski announced $300 million would be made available for the electrification of ferries through that infrastructure law, which would benefit Alaska.
White House vs. Interior
It was not just Murkowski who exerted pressure. Alaska’s entire three-member congressional delegation played a role, and they took collective credit for forcing Biden’s hand Monday.
In a call with reporters Monday morning that served as a victory lap, Murkowski, Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan and Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola detailed the coordinated full-court press to sway the administration in its final stages of decisionmaking, culminating in an hourlong meeting in the Oval Office with Biden on March 3.
There, Murkowski emphasized Willow’s economic advantages, Sullivan the geopolitical implications and Peltola the diverse constituencies supporting the project on the ground, including Alaska Natives.
“The decision was ultimately going to be made at the White House level — not only with senior leaders, but the president’s direct involvement himself,” Murkowski asserted during that call. “The president had clearly been apprised of Willow, of what Willow was and why it was a priority for us.”
Although she voted for Haaland for Interior Secretary, Murkowski has been deeply critical of her leadership of the department. She is also scornful of other top Interior officials she has accused of turning a blind eye to Alaska’s unique circumstances. Alaska officials have long said stewardship of the state’s environment needs to be balanced with support for energy development, the latter of which powers the state and funds social services.
On Monday, she didn’t hesitate to credit the Biden administration for the decision while suggesting some inside Interior were seeking to undercut it.
“Were there people … within the Department of the Interior that were working to actively kill this? Absolutely, positively, and I don’t think you have to name names,” Murkowski asserted, adding, “This was not something that I think was ultimately going to reside with the secretary of the Interior.”
The exception to that rule continues to be Beaudreau, who Murkowski said reached out to her personally to “walk me through the specific details” of the administration’s announcements relating to energy extraction activities on federal lands around the state.
As Alaska lawmakers celebrated the news Monday, climate hawks were aghast at the administration’s greenlighting of the Willow project as a surrender on multiple fronts.
“I’m sure they had a significant impact, there’s no doubt about it,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) of the Alaska delegation on a press call with representatives from the Alaska Wilderness League and the Sierra Club on Monday afternoon. “They brought the political pressure. … None of that is surprising. What is surprising, and frankly very disappointing, is that a decision like this came down to politics.”
Sierra Club executive director Ben Jealous agreed: “No doubt this will help with the reelection of every member of the Alaska delegation.”
In the upcoming election cycle, no member of the trio stands to benefit more than Peltola, the first Alaska Native to represent the state who won a special election last summer to succeed late-Republican Rep. Don Young.
Peltola, a member of the House Natural Resources Committee alongside Huffman, was just added to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s list of most vulnerable incumbents for 2024.
“Getting Willow across the finish line is something I campaigned very hard on,” she said Monday. “I knew this had to be a priority of anybody who was the position I’m in.”
But, Jealous added, “it’s hard to see how this really adds up for President Biden. … His political calculation and his climate calculation may have made sense in the last century, but it’s clearly less suited for this century we’re in … both on politics and on preventing human extinction.”
Murkowski, in her interview, dismissed accusations of Biden’s “capitulation” to fossil fuel interests.
“The only promise the president ever made to me on Willow was that he was going to listen to me,” she said.
He listened, Murkowski said, to the facts about Alaska’s environmental standards and the myriad ways Alaskans depend on the extraction industry, “and he evaluated that against everything else that he had coming at him, and all the politics that he knew were going to be thrown at him.”
Her conclusion: “I think he evaluated it clearly,” she said, “and he made the right decision.”
A version of this report first ran in E&E News’ E&E Daily. Get access to more comprehensive and in-depth reporting on the energy transition, natural resources, climate change and more in E&E News.