Untitled Document

Energy Issues Take Center Stage in Senate Races
Ashlee Dere, Bridget K. Martin and Emily Lehr Wallace

This year, pollsters and talking heads pontificating on Sunday talk shows and the nightly news tell us that voters are most concerned about the war on terror and the state of the economy. Earth science issues, such as the future of Yucca Mountain or petroleum drilling in Alaska, may not take center stage in the minds of many voters, but they do figure into some prominent U.S. Senate races this year — a year in which 34 seats (out of 100 total) and the majority control in the Senate are up for grabs. Here, we take a look at several key state contests that could change the geoscience policy landscape, particularly for national energy policy.

Drilling in Alaska

Geology is the star of the Alaskan Senate race, with drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) at the center. Both Republican incumbent Lisa Murkowski and her challenger, former Alaska Governor Tony Knowles (D), support oil and natural gas exploration in Alaska’s protected northeastern coast as a way to decrease dependence on foreign oil and help the economy locally and nationally. The Senate race now revolves around which candidate would do a better job in bringing development to fruition.

When the refuge was created in 1980, Congress left open the possibility of future exploration in part of the 1.5-million-acre coastal plain (see story in this issue). Since that time, the Alaska delegation has been working to allow drilling. Recent polls show that more than 70 percent of Alaskans support drilling in ANWR. The state is heavily dependent on the oil industry, with more than 80 percent of the state government funded by oil and gas revenues. Additionally, each Alaska resident receives $2,000 annually from the state petroleum fund, making oil exploration and development a top priority and creating a fierce battle for this Senate seat.

In his campaign, Knowles argues that the Republicans have had their chance to secure drilling in ANWR and have failed. Recent television ads in his favor explain that, although the Democratic Party is anti-ANWR, he will be in a position to convince fellow Democrats to vote in favor of drilling. He has already joined forces with Reps. Chris John (D-La.) and Brad Carson (D-Okla.) to work on a strategy to gather support of other Democrats to open ANWR. One TV ad says that Knowles has “the independence to break Washington gridlock and make real progress on ANWR.”

Conversely, ads sponsored by the National Republican Senatorial Committee paint Knowles as a liberal who will not push hard enough to open ANWR. Another TV ad states: “If Tony Knowles goes to Washington, he leaves Alaska and joins forces with the Kennedy-Kerry team, who wouldn’t know a caribou if it dropped in for a bowl of Boston clam chowder.”

Murkowski has also produced her own TV ad that says that she is the only candidate “leading the fight to build a gas pipeline and open” ANWR. She has also attacked Knowles, saying that as the Democratic governor of Alaska, he was unable to convince President Clinton not to veto the 1995 bill that would have opened ANWR to drilling. There is division, however, among the Alaskan Republican party, with many claiming Murkowski is not conservative enough to continue to represent the majority in Alaska.

Both candidates have also attacked each other on the issue of the Alaskan natural gas pipeline. The pipeline represents the most immediate prospect for energy development in the state and is expected to transport 4.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day from the North Slope to the lower 48 states. The tax incentive that would have funded the pipeline, however, was stalled with the Senate energy bill earlier this year.

An additional twist in the campaign lies in the fact that Murkowski was nominated to finish the Senate term of her father, Frank Murkowski, when he was elected governor of Alaska in 2002. According to a article, allegations of nepotism and a broken promise by Frank Murkowski not to raise taxes have displeased many Alaskan citizens.

Alaska has not elected a Democratic senator in 30 years.

Energy crunch in California

In California, the energy crisis of 2001 and the Enron scandal have highlighted and exacerbated energy problems. California produces only 16 percent of the natural gas it uses, and no new oil refineries have opened in the state since 1969. In this year’s Senate race, the two candidates have taken different approaches to finding a solution for increased energy demand of more than 35 million people in the growing state. Democratic incumbent Barbara Boxer, who is an advocate of increasing energy efficiency, faces Republican Bill Jones, who supports increasing supply through both conventional and alternative energy sources.

Boxer has a long history of Congressional service — she was a representative from 1982 to 1992 and is running for her third term as senator. Jones — who lost in the governor’s race against Gray Davis in 2002 — has extensive experience at the state level, previously serving as an assemblyman and secretary of state. Boxer and Jones have announced nine-point and five-point energy plans, respectively. Similar to that of the Democratic Party, Boxer’s plan proposes pressuring OPEC to increase oil production while applying federal antitrust laws to the organization, urging Shell Oil Co. to keep open or sell a California refinery it seeks to shut down, and utilizing the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

Jones proposes using the powers of the federal government to solve many of the state’s energy problems. Constructing new refineries and pipelines and investing heavily in alternative fuels, he argues, should be a national priority, especially in the West, where expanding pipelines and refineries in neighboring states can help fulfill the energy needs of California. Jones also disagrees with Boxer concerning the use of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which was created in 1974 to prevent economic disruption in the event of an emergency. He explained to the Los Angeles Times on May 27 that “the president has to be cautious about protecting America’s fundamental strategic reserve and not exploiting it just for political purposes.”

Both candidates oppose offshore drilling, but are still pointing fingers at each other. Boxer has said that Jones voted 10 times against a ban on offshore oil drilling. Jones explained that he supported offshore drilling in the past due to a lack of alternatives, but now new options are available, and he therefore supports a ban. He has criticized Boxer for implementing only temporary delays, not permanent bans, of leases off the California coast.

According to a June 24 article on, Boxer has expressed skepticism of Jones’ motives for federal investment in alternative fuels, especially ethanol, which he advocates using in vehicles. Jones is a founder and part-owner of Pacific Ethanol, Inc., an alternative energy company with plans to open two plants in California’s Central Valley. Jones has dismissed Boxer’s accusations, stating that eight new ethanol plants in California would produce the equivalent of 1.4 million gallons of fuel daily by next summer. This amount, he argues, would take 10 years to achieve at an oil refinery of the same size.

Ethanol in South Dakota

Ethanol is a key issue in South Dakota, where Democratic incumbent Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader, is facing a tight race against former South Dakota Republican Rep. John Thune. Both candidates strongly support the increased production and use of ethanol, which would benefit the state’s corn-producing farmers.

VeraSun Energy is a 100-million-gallon ethanol plant in Aurora, S.D. Ethanol, a biodegradable fuel additive produced from corn, is playing a role in the Senate race in South Dakota, where it is an important prospect for economic growth. Tom Daschle, the Senate minority leader, is competing against former South Dakota Republican Rep. John Thune in a fierce race for the Senate seat. Image courtesy of

Ethanol, a biodegradable fuel additive produced from corn, is an important prospect for economic growth in South Dakota and is seen as a renewable alternative fuel that can help decrease America’s dependence on imported oil. According to the South Dakota Corn Growers Association, more than 60 percent of farmers in the state have invested in some part of ethanol production, which utilizes more than 140 million bushels a year — roughly one in every three rows of corn. This industry has shown a 33-percent return on investment and has employed thousands either directly or indirectly.

Daschle touts that under his leadership, 10 ethanol plants have been built, and ethanol production has increased from zero to more than 400 million gallons a year. To boost ethanol production, he passed legislation in 1990 requiring the nation’s nine worst ozone areas to use cleaner burning gasoline and, in 1998, secured an extension for the ethanol tax credit through 2007. Thune has encouraged the use of ethanol with his support of value-added agriculture, which encourages farmers to be involved in the manufacturing and marketing of the products they produce. Thune fought to include an amendment in the 2002 Farm Bill that obtained funding for the construction of new ethanol plants as part of the value-added agriculture development program.

Thune and Daschle both backed the energy bill that has been idle in the Senate since June, which would double the amount of ethanol used in gasoline and add an estimated 10,000 jobs and $1 billion to the state’s economy. Daschle, who worked to put this provision into the energy bill, is using it as an example of his power in Washington and his ability to provide for the needs of his state. Republicans, including Thune, have blamed the Democratic leader for failing to get the two extra votes necessary to end the Democrat-led filibuster and thus bring a vote on the energy bill. The bill failed when both parties were unable to agree on other provisions in the bill, including a controversial provision protecting producers of the gas additive MTBE that Daschle vehemently opposed. Daschle made another attempt to pass his ethanol bill in April when he tried to attach it to an unrelated Internet tax bill, but the amendment was defeated.

Daschle, who is running for his fourth term as senator, won his last two reelection campaigns with more than 60 percent of the vote in a state that strongly favors Republicans. Thune, who served as South Dakota’s representative for six years, lost a highly controversial 2002 Senate election against Democrat Tim Johnson by a mere 524 votes. Evidence of voter registration fraud and ballot stuffing, especially on Native American reservations, was confirmed, but Thune and the Republican Party decided not to question the legitimacy of the election. Since the 2002 election, the state has enacted a new law requiring registered voters to show photo identification at the polls in an effort to prevent fraud in what is likely to be a close election this year.

The White House and Congress are also paying close attention to the results of this race. Although South Dakota has a history of voting Republican in presidential elections — Bush won there by 22 percentage points in the last presidential election — the state currently has an all-Democratic delegation. Vice President Cheney recently traveled to South Dakota to help fundraise for Thune, while President Bush visited four times in 2002 to support the former representative. Although it is not traditional for the leader of one party to campaign against the leader of the other, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has also campaigned in South Dakota on Thune’s behalf.

Daschle, who is one of the primary critics of the Bush administration, has received help from former President Bill Clinton and several prominent members of the Democratic Party caucus. This race is expected to be one of the most expensive in the country, with both candidates raising $2 million in the first three months of 2004 and Daschle setting his campaign goal at $10 million.

Yucca Mountain in Nevada

The debate over using Yucca Mountain as the nation’s permanent repository for nuclear waste has had a prominent place in the limelight over the last several years. In the Nevada Senate race this year, Yucca Mountain will continue to receive attention, with Democratic incumbent Sen. Harry Reid, a staunch opponent of the repository, facing off against Republican Richard Ziser.

The future of Yucca Mountain is still largely unknown, with Congress in recent months struggling to find funds for the project (see Geotimes, August 2004). On July 9, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld the constitutionality of the Yucca Mountain site-selection process but rejected the 10,000-year compliance period for limiting the release of radiation set by the Environmental Protection Agency. This decision allows the project to continue, but the 10,000-year safety guarantee must be addressed before an application can be submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in December. If the application is not filed by this time or Congress cannot find funding for the project, the anticipated 2010 opening date will be pushed back.

Reid has vowed to fight any legislation or regulation that would bring nuclear waste into Nevada. He has been the foremost opponent of the project in Congress, working to cut Yucca Mountain’s budget and expose questionable scientific evaluations of the site. On his campaign Web site, Reid states, “I do not believe that the disposal of this nation’s high-level waste in Nevada is a foregone conclusion, or given the information available, that it can be done safely.”

Ziser, while also unenthusiastic about Yucca Mountain, has taken a different approach on the issue. Unlike Reid, he views the nuclear repository as a done deal that only the courts could halt. Instead of fighting against the project, Ziser proposes being actively involved in the negotiations and discussions concerning Yucca Mountain. By doing so, he believes he would be able to ensure that the needs and safety of the citizens of Nevada are met, especially in dealing with the transportation of nuclear waste across the state.

Gas prices in Oregon

The price of gas has been a hot issue throughout the nation this year, especially in Western states such as Oregon, where former judge and cattleman Al King, a Republican, is challenging popular incumbent Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat. The issues presented in this race are important because Wyden has been one of the loudest voices in the Senate countering oil industry lobbyists.

Recent high gas prices (such as those shown here in California) have been central to the Oregon Senate race, where former judge and cattleman Al King, a Republican, is challenging popular incumbent Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat. Image courtesy of Ralph Lubick.

Wyden says that mergers and market manipulations by oil companies are a main cause of high gas prices. He and other members of Congress requested a Federal Trade Commission investigation of the closure of a relatively profitable Shell oil refinery in Bakersfield, Calif., under suspicions that Shell is tightening refining capacity to raise pump prices. Shell reports that the closure is due to decreasing supplies of local crude oil.

King favors loosening some environmental regulations and streamlining the permitting process for new oil refineries. At present, there are few refineries in the Pacific Northwest, and industry lobbyists argue that no new ones will be built unless the facilities become more economically viable through changes in the permitting and environmental compliance processes.

Energy independence, King says, should be the focus of the nation’s energy policy, and he has called for increased innovation and dramatic increases in domestic exploration and refining capacity. Wyden supports some amount of domestic energy exploration but maintains that it should be done in an environmentally responsible way.

Development in Colorado

The Colorado Senate race is one of the most closely watched of the 2004 elections. That’s because Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell is retiring, leaving beer-industry giant Pete Coors, a Republican, and Democratic Attorney General Ken Salazar to run a tight, expensive race that might ultimately determine control of the Senate. Controversy over energy exploration on public lands and other environmental issues has come to the forefront of local politics since the Bush administration has taken a more active approach to developing domestic resources in the past couple of years.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, Colorado expects to grant a record 2,500 leases this year. Several communities and activist organizations have fought the administration and energy companies in places such as the White River National Forest and the nearby Roan Plateau, the Vermillion Basin in the northwest corner of the state, and the HD Mountains Roadless Area in southwestern Colorado. The ultimate decision to drill for natural gas on nonfederal lands is left to local authorities such as county commissioners, who can veto land-use proposals.

Greenwire reported on Aug. 11 that although environmental and energy issues were not at the forefront of the August Senate primaries, they could play a more significant role in the general election. Similarly, Environment and Energy Daily quoted Paul Straayer, a political science professor at the Colorado State University, on June 28 as saying that the drilling issue was not major, although unlikely alliances could arise between constituents, and “depending on how a candidate would play it, it could make a difference.” Ranchers who are being affected by the increase in subsurface land lease rights are working with environmental groups to stop some projects.

Salazar has some valuable credentials with environmentalists and anti-drilling activists, as he has said that he would consider additional protection for public lands, while Coors has stated that he would not advocate increased protection of public lands from natural gas drilling, according to the Aspen Times.

Louisiana tossup

In Louisiana, Senate candidates have taken strong stances in support of oil and gas industries. Louisiana’s Democratic Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco has said that the industries contribute $93 billion to the state’s economy each year. High natural gas prices have had a large effect on the Louisiana industry. The Louisiana labor department reported that thousands of jobs in the oil support and chemical manufacturing industries were lost between June 2003 and June 2004, as business was sent to countries with lower natural gas prices, according to the Lafayette Daily Advertiser.

Retiring Sen. John Breaux (D) has endorsed Rep. Chris John (D), who is facing opposition from State Treasurer John Kennedy (D) and Rep. David Vitter (R). All three candidates have advocated domestic development of energy resources, and their positions on energy development are largely indistinguishable. Louisiana does not hold primary elections — all candidates run against each other on Nov. 2, and if none receive more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two candidates have a runoff. Political analysts have called the race a tossup. No Republican has been elected to the Senate from Louisiana since the 1880s.

During their service in the House of Representatives, John and Vitter both supported the 2004 energy bill, which passed the House but is so far blocked by Democrats in the Senate. John has crossed party lines on other energy-related issues, as he supports drilling in ANWR and the Eastern Gulf.

As reported in the Anchorage Daily News on Aug. 16, John and Alaskan Senate candidate Knowles would like to “broaden the [ANWR] debate within the Democratic Caucus.” However, a Vitter spokesman pointed out that while the major candidates in Louisiana do share some similar views on energy, the election of a Republican in this Senate race will increase the likelihood of Republican control of the Senate and advancement of Republican energy priorities.

Dere, Martin and Wallace are all with the American Geological Institute’s (AGI) Government Affairs Program. Dere and Martin are AGI/American Institute of Professional Geologists 2004 summer interns. The authors thank the various campaign staffs for contributing information to this story.

"A loophole threatens Yucca Mountain," Geotimes, August 2004
"Slippery slope for drilling in Alaska," Geotimes, October 2004
"At the pump I," Geotimes, May 2004
"At the pump II," Geotimes, June 2004

And check out past Political Scene columns at the Government Affairs Archive
and on the Geotimes story Archive.

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