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Will BP Be Held Responsible? Not if Senator Lisa Murkowski Can Help It

Lisa Murkowski gets hundreds of thousands of dollars from the industry she's now charged with interrogating. What will this mean for the BP cleanup?

On Tuesday, May 11, Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, led questioning in a Senate hearing designed to hash out the details of what caused the Deepwater Horizon explosion. After briefly mentioning the 11 workers who were lost following the blast, Murkowski affirmed that despite its risk, offshore drilling is essential to America’s energy future.

“We cannot look at this sad chapter and conclude that we should increase the billions of dollars we are sending to foreign governments who run greater risks and use our own money against us,” she said. “The American people are not ready to turn their backs on offshore production -- and neither should we.”

Murkowski’s unwavering support for drilling -- even in the face of what may be the biggest environmental catastrophe in U.S. history -- came as no surprise. As the ranking Republican in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Murkowski is responsible for representing her party on legislation that has to do with the Department of the Interior and much of the Department of Energy. More often than not, this means taking a pro-drilling stance.

What is notable is the extent to which Murkowski is sustained by the same industry she’s now charged with interrogating. As it turns out, a great deal of the senator’s political funding comes from various corners of the energy sector -- some darker than others.

According to data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, Murkowski received $203,326 from the oil and gas lobby in 2009-2010, making her the third largest benefactor of those funds. This amount is more than twice what Jeff Bingaman, the Democratic chairman of the Energy and Natural resources Committee, made in the same period, and approximately 15 times what Murkowski made just two years ago.

Additionally, energy companies (and law firms that represent them) currently hold the top four spots on Murkowski’s campaign committee donor list. Taken together, PACs and donors from Constellation Energy, Edison Chouest Offshore, Van Ness Feldman and Exxon Mobil have coughed up $115,546 since 2005.

And while BP may be under the microscope right now, many of these companies have seen their fair share of environmental problems in the past. Constellation Energy, which increased its donations to Murkowski by 300 percent over the past two years, paid $1,209,000 in environmental fines and penalties in 2007, according to its 2008 Corporate Social Responsibility Report (pdf). It also currently owns a power plant in Maryland ranked 83rd out of all plants in the United States for the highest amount of contaminated coal waste; in 2009, the plant threw out 464,000 tons – 491 tons of which were toxic metals.

Murkowski also has ties to Exxon Mobil, which donated $20,500 to her campaign committee during the 2005-2010 cycle. Before its merger with Mobil in 1999 (and its world-record setting 11 billion quarterly earnings in 2008), Exxon paid fines of $25 million (criminal plea agreement), $100 million (criminal restitution) and $900 million (civil settlements) for damages from the now-infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. According to estimates from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, 11 million gallons of crude oil (enough to fill 17 Olympic swimming pools) leaked into the sound before the spill was contained. The disaster killed around 250,000 sea birds, 2,800 sea otters, 250 bald eagles, 300 harbor seals, a few billion fish eggs and 22 orca whales. (These are conservative estimates, since animal carcasses tend to sink and decompose.)

Murkowski’s most notable connection though is to Veco Corp., a now-defunct Alaska-based oil and pipeline company. Directly following the Exxon Valdez spill, Exxon contracted out the majority of its cleanup efforts to Veco, paying the company a total of $750 million for what some critics have called “ a pathetically ineffective response:” One study found that roughly 1.6 million gallons of oil remained in “subtidal settlements and “intertidal shorelines” five years after the spill.