Is Murkowski’s Loss an Omen of a Coming Tilt toward Climate Denialism?

Mixed feelings among environmentalists over defeat of a traditional foe

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WASHINGTON—Folks with a conservation bent who cheered so heartily when Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski was evidently toppled in her bid for a third term might want to think twice about their joyful reaction.

Yes, the daughter of an Alaskan governor and U.S. senator has been diligent in attempting to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its Supreme Court-imbued authority to curb heat-trapping gases via the Clean Air Act.

However, she also wields extraordinary power as the top Republican on the prestigious Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and she’s not a climate denier—unlike her Aug. 24 primary opponent Joe Miller and handfuls of other Republican Senate candidates.

She acknowledges the toll global warming is taking on the 49th state, and that kind of Republican moderation could be in short supply when the dust settles after November’s elections.

It is also worth remembering that Murkowski co-sponsored a cap-and-trade bill in 2007, voted for an energy committee bill that included a 15 percent renewable electricity standard and is considered a potential swing vote on climate legislation, though not a bill with as much punch as the American Clean Energy and Security Act.

That’s a bit more environmental heft than can be attributed to the Kansas native, Persian Gulf War veteran, Yale Law School graduate and political rookie who flabbergasted most everybody by eking out a primary victory against Murkowski. No doubt, the latest darling of the “tea party” movement was aided by his Sarah Palin endorsement.

“We haven’t heard there’s man-made global warming,” Miller told an Alaska newspaper in August.

When pondering what Murkowski’s loss might mean to the dynamics of the energy and environment conversation on Capitol Hill, political trackers at several nationwide environmental organizations emphasized three points: 1) Don’t count Murkowski out yet 2) The Senate Energy Committee will have a different tenor if a North Carolinian replaces Murkowski as the ranking member and 3) Climate deniers could form an influential voting bloc in the Senate if enough of them are elected.

Murkowski Looking for Another Ballot Entry

News reports indicate Murkowski is casting about for ways to have her name on the Nov. 2 ballot; perhaps as a libertarian or maybe as a write-in candidate because of her excellent name recognition.

If she’s shut out on those options, it looks as if first-term Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., would be in line to become the ranking member of the energy committee. But that’s not a sure thing, Tony Massaro, senior vice president for political affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, told SolveClimate News in an interview.

“In a year like this that’s pretty crazy, he’s showing some vulnerability,” Massaro explains about Burr, who won with 52 percent of the vote in 2004. “He’s not well-known and his opponent is polling quite well for somebody who has not raised a lot of money.”

Burr is facing off against Democrat Elaine Marshall, North Carolina’s secretary of state who also served in the state senate from 1993-94.

And that whole chess game could be moot if Alaska’s Democratic Senate candidate—Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams—can overcome funding and name recognition challenges to beat Murkowski or Miller.

“Quite frankly, before the primary, I would’ve said that McAdams couldn’t win,” Massaro notes. “But now I can’t say that because a lot can happen in 55 days, especially when voters are just starting to pay attention.”

“The entire dynamics of the Alaska race are completely unclear and weird in their own peculiar way,” Massaro emphasizes. “This has to play out a little while to see if Miller can consolidate all of the Republicans. Until we see some dust settling in Alaska, we won’t be doing any endorsements.”

Murkowski a Conservation Puzzle

It is highly unlikely that the League of Conservation Voters would ever endorse Murkowski or Burr as environmental saviors. Both register consistently low numbers on the advocacy organization’s trademark environmental scorecard.

Murkowski earned a score of 36 percent for her 2009 votes, so her lifetime score is now 18 percent. Burr is more reticent on energy and environmental issues, observers say. His scorecard is in the single digits, with a 9 percent score for 2009 and a 7 percent lifetime score.

Burr’s numbers aren’t much higher in the scorecard compiled by Republicans for Environmental Protection—10 percent for 2009 and 17 percent for 2005-09. Murkowski’s were significantly higher, with 70 percent for 2009 and 26 percent for 2005-09.

“Murkowski is a little bit of a hard animal to pin down,” Elizabeth Martin Perera, a legislative liaison with the Union of Concerned Scientists, notes in an interview.

While Murkowski doesn’t deny the science of climate change and supports clean energy, Perera says, she frustrates conservation organizations by calling her attacks on the EPA benign when they aren’t, supporting weak climate legislation and watering down the renewable electricity standard included in the bill that emerged from the energy committee chaired by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who is known as a fair and open-minded negotiator.

“Bipartisanhip is vital on these bills,” Perera says. “The loss of Murkowski on that committee will change the dynamics quite significantly because fewer compromises will be brokered. And that’s a concern.”

But all Washington observers know that Murkowski is able to go only as far as Republican leadership allows.

“She comes across looking like the grand compromiser and has all the right rhetoric when a bill is in committee but would she vote for it on the Senate floor?” Perera asks. “The real question behind this is how good the Republican leadership is at holding their rank and file in check.”

Burr would be less likely to strike deals with Bingaman, Massaro hypothesizes, meaning that bills with tougher environmental and energy standards would emerge from committee, but they could die more quickly on the Senate floor without signs of Republican compromise.

“I’m a little mixed about it,” he says about Murkowski’s potential departure. “You can point to how her defeat would be good for the environment and you can point to things that would be bad.”

One boon of removing an Alaskan from a potent energy seat, he says, is less time spent on contentious issues such as drilling in the Arctic.

Dirty Dozen Times Two?

Neither Murkowski nor Burr scored among this year’s Dirty Dozen environmental offenders currently being tabulated by Massaro’s organization. However, three of the self-proclaimed climate deniers vying for Republican Senate seats did make the cut: Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Roy Blunt of Missouri and Carly Fiorina of California.

Other climate deniers that League of Conservation Voters president Gene Karpinski is calling on carpet include Joe Miller of Alaska, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Sharron Angle of Nevada, Ken Buck of Colorado, Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and the six New Hampshire candidates: Jim Bender, Gerard Beloin, Bill Binnie, Kelly Ayotte, Dennis Lamare and Ovide Lamontagne.

Refusing to accept the sound and settled science that man-made carbon pollution is causing the planet to warm is a disturbing trend, Karpinksi said in a Tuesday memo. He added that the oil industry and other corporate polluters are orchestrating the misinformation campaign about global climate change.

If these “full-fledged global warming deniers” win in November, he said, the “number of card-carrying members of this Flat-Earth Society will rise exponentially in the world’s greatest deliberative body.”

Massaro offers yet another spin on that potential impact.

“What if all the deniers get elected?” he asks. “And if Lisa Murkowski is back in the Senate, do they want her chairing the (energy) committee?”

“It’s a fun parlor game,” he concludes. “We know the complexion of the Senate is going to be different in 2011. How different and what that difference means? Well, that’s why we hold the elections.”