The debate’s importance, though, may ultimately go well beyond the fate of the Arctic refuge. Analysts say Senator Murkowski’s stance symbolizes a fundamental challenge of climate politics: How to bridge the gap between moderate Republicans from states reliant on fossil fuels on one side, and Democrats and environmental activists on the other.
“To move on the climate front in Washington you’re going to need to bring a non-trivial number of Republicans into a coalition, which means there has to be compromises,’’ said Jerry Taylor, president of the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank. “We’re going to have to address conservative concerns and policy demands.”
“It’s not unfair for environmentalists to argue that if you take climate change seriously, it simply requires the rapid decarbonization of the economy. Full stop. Climate change is real and demands a policy response,” Mr. Taylor said. Of Senator Murkowski, he added, “Her skepticism is about that policy response. Anything that’s going to increase oil and gas prices is something she’s going to be very skeptical about.”
Senator Murkowski has walked a delicate line on climate change for much of her 15 years in Congress. She routinely acknowledges that the climate is changing and that warming poses a threat to Alaska. This year, she urged President Trump not to withdraw from the Paris agreement. But she also has championed natural gas exports, expanding offshore and onshore drilling and the 2016 lifting of a 40-year-old ban on crude oil exports. She has introduced legislation to open the Arctic wilderness every term she has served in the Senate.
The senator, for her part, said she sees no inconsistencies in her views.
“I think for anybody who has spent any time in Alaska, there is an awareness that we all have that we are seeing the impacts of climate change perhaps more readily than in other parts of the country because of our Arctic environment,” Senator Murkowski said in an interview.
“But we’re also a place where we recognize that in order to stay warm, we have to have a resource that can keep us warm, and oil has been a mainstay for us,” she said. “We’ve provided it to the country and that has allowed for jobs and revenues, it has allowed for schools and roads and institutions that everybody else around the country enjoys.”
Money from oil and gas development is a critical source of income in Alaska. Since the completion of the trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline in 1977, petroleum revenues have averaged more than 85 percent of the state budget. According to the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, petroleum supports a third of all jobs in the state.
Champions of opening the refuge assert that shifting Alaska’s economy will take time, and, despite gains in renewable power, the reality is that oil will be around for decades to come.
On Thursday, the debate over the Arctic refuge begins in earnest. A budget blueprint passed by the House and Senate in recent weeks has set the stage for Republicans to overhaul the tax code with the support of only 50 senators, rather than the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster.
The budget blueprint also paves the way for a drilling measure to be attached to the tax overhaul. Using that approach, Republicans would be able to open the refuge to drilling without encountering a filibuster.
The Trump administration has cited possible revenues to federal coffers totaling $1.8 billion by 2018. Senator Murkowski’s energy panel, where Republicans hold a majority, could vote as early as next week to approve legislation directing part of the refuge opened.
Democrats have vowed to fight the effort. Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington, the senior Democrat on the energy committee, pointed to a recent congressional audit warning that global warming had already cost the country billions of dollars.
“Alaska’s outdoor and tourism economy already generates more jobs than the oil economy,” Senator Cantwell said. “Personally, I would be working to protect that outdoor wildlife economy instead of undermining it by drilling in the Arctic.”
Proponents of drilling point to Energy Information Administration estimates projecting that oil and gas will account for more than half the world’s energy supply through 2050, despite the gains in renewable power. Kara Moriarty, president and chief executive of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, has asserted that Alaska’s contribution to climate change is minuscule and it will continue to be small even if new drilling does occur in the refuge.
“If we were to immediately shut down production activity that is occurring, even if we went to zero, it is not going to make a difference in stopping any kind of change in our climate,” she said.
It’s a case that Senator Murkowski makes as well. The answer, she argues, lies in using oil revenues to pave the way for alternative energy sources.
“It’s not something that can be done overnight, and it is something that can only be done if you have resources,” she said. Alaska, Senator Murkowski said, embraces clean energy and has devoted state resources to boosting capital for distributed energy and developing micro-grids to power remote parts of the country.
“For the people who live and work and raise their families in a very small population state, we don’t think we are the problem,” Senator Murkowski said. “We think we are the answer.”