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

News & Politics

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.

In the years between 2001-2007, Veco was the single largest individual donor to Murkowski’s campaign committee, contributing a total of $45,250. These contributions stopped when Bill Allen and Rick Smith, Veco’s CEO and vice president, pleaded guilty to a slew of charges, including extortion, bribery and conspiracy to impede the IRS. According to his 2007 plea agreement (pdf), Allen orchestrated the illegal payment of $243,250 to an Alaska senator between 2002 and 2006. He was sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay $750,000; Smith got slapped with 21 months in prison, a $10,000 fine and three years' probation.

In all, 11 of the 14 people implicated in the lawsuit were found to be somehow affiliated with Veco. One of them, a lawyer and lobbyist named Jim Clark (convicted of secretly channeling $68,550 in Veco money), worked as the chief of staff to former Gov. Frank Murkowski, Lisa’s father.

When reached for comment Tuesday, a spokesman for Murkowski said the senator’s relationship to Veco, along with the oil and gas industry as a whole, is “the same relationship she has to all constituents: There is no relationship. No special relationship, no unique relationship.”

“Senator Murkowski’s concerns and votes reflect the concerns of Alaskans and the only constituents she’s beholden to are Alaskans,” he said.

Another spokesman for Murkowski’s campaign said in an email interview that “all contributions from Veco executives Rick Smith and Bill Allen were given to charity.” But when pressed for details about the donation (what percentage of Veco’s total contributions came from Smith and Allen themselves; the year in which the funds were donated; to whom they were given), the representative did not comment.

Veco is now owned by CH2M HILL, the fifth largest engineering company in North America. Though CH2M HILL is not currently contracted in any capacity to deal with the BP disaster, John Corsi, the company's director of corporate affairs, told me that "there's the potential for it down the road." In the three years since it purchased Veco, CH2M HILL has increased its donations to Murkowski by nearly 800 percent.  

Murkowski, meanwhile, seems to be returning the favor. Last Thursday, she blocked a voice vote on the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund (OSLTF) that aimed to increase the maximum liability for oil companies after a spill from $75 million to $10 billion. Though Murkowski has introduced legislation that would expand the OLSTF to $10 billion, she (along with the Obama administration) considers that amount too much for energy companies to pay: “an arbitrary number,” according to one spokesperson.

Murkowski has also introduced legislation that would allow drilling from state-owned lands in Alaska – lands that touch the western edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). During another Senate hearing last Tuesday on the BP explosion, she suggested to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that since offshore drilling seems to present such a complex web of threats, perhaps lawmakers should consider more drilling in Alaska.

“We have an opportunity up north in Alaska onshore with ANWR, where we have the potential of about 16 billion barrels of oil,” she said.

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