One of the Senate's most vocal critics of U.S. EPA's climate rules is also Congress' top recipient of campaign funds from the electric utility industry.
Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, who was elected to Senate GOP leadership last year and holds a key post on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, received more campaign contributions from the utility industry than any other lawmaker during the 2009-2010 election cycle, according to data compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Last year, Murkowski received $157,000 from electric utilities, and since 2005, she has received more than $244,000, according to the center's data.
As the Alaska senator presses forward with efforts to block the Obama administration from regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, her contributions from the utility industry and other energy interests have critics questioning her motives. Murkowski's campaign insists the re-election money does not influence her legislative actions.
Murkowski will have the opportunity this week to offer an amendment to limit EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases. It is unclear what the amendment would entail, or if the senator will decide to offer one when the Senate considers unrelated legislation to raise the federal debt ceiling as early as Wednesday. Her options include an amendment to prohibit EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and other stationary sources.
The senator insists that unwieldy EPA regulations would cripple the U.S. economy. But critics say her judgment has been clouded by the cash she has received from electric utilities and other industries wary of EPA climate regulations.
Frank O'Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, said that while he doubts that Murkowski's efforts to handcuff EPA are entirely based on her campaign contributions, "it's hard to avoid the impression that it's a factor."
"I don't believe you can buy a senator for $50,000, but you can certainly rent one," O'Donnell said.
Mary Hughes, a spokeswoman for Murkowski's Senate campaign, said, "The senator makes her decisions with respect to what she does based on her feelings of what is right and what Alaskans want."
Beyond utilities, several other energy industries have bolstered Murkowski's campaign funds recently.
She received $142,000 from the oil and gas industry last year, making her that industry's No. 3 recipient behind Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and David Vitter (R-La.). Since 2005, oil and gas interests contributed more than $172,000 to her campaign.
Murkowski has also received money from mining and pipeline operations.
Several of her top campaign contributors since 2005 include: Edison Chouest Offshore, Constellation Energy Group Inc., Southern Co., Van Ness Feldman and Exxon Mobil Corp.
Van Ness Feldman, a lobbying shop, in 2009 represented many energy clients, including American Electric Power Co. Inc., the National Alliance of Forest Owners, and Cellulosic Biofuel Working Group. It also represents non-energy interests.
Observers point to several reasons for Murkowski's elevation on lists of top recipients from major industries, including her rise to a Republican leadership post and her ranking member position on the Energy Committee. She is also facing re-election this year, which has likely encouraged industries to fill her coffers.
Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association, which gave Murkowski $10,000 this election cycle, said she has become involved in "the larger debate about energy and the environment in a very responsible way."
"She is a compelling voice," Popovich added. "She makes sense. She's articulating a viewpoint that's responsible."
Giving contributions to the senator is a legal option that groups like NMA take advantage of, he said.
"We want to be at the table," Popovich said. "We don't want to be on the menu."
Links to lobbyist
Murkowski's critics say the senator's ties to a Washington lobbyist offer clear evidence that industry is wielding a heavy hand in influencing her attempts to stall EPA rules.
The Washington Post reported last week that Jeff Holmstead, an energy lobbyist and former EPA air chief during the George W. Bush administration, advised Murkowski's office on a failed 2009 amendment that sought to block EPA from imposing greenhouse gases from stationary sources for one year.
Two of Holmstead's clients -- Southern Co. and Duke Energy Corp. -- are among Murkowski's top contributors. During her career, Southern has given the senator $26,000, while Duke has contributed $24,000. At least five other clients of Holmstead have also contributed to Murkowski's campaign in recent years, federal lobbying reports show. Those companies include Ameren Corp., Arch Coal, CSX Corp., Energy Future Holdings and Progress Energy Inc.
"Not only do we have campaign contributions, but now we have evidence of active legislative collaboration by a lobbyists representing special interests," said Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at Public Citizen.
Said O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch, "I think it makes Murkowski's amendment positively radioactive, because it makes it look like she's simply carrying water for businesses that gave her money."
Public Citizen, along with MoveOn.org and public interest groups, are calling on Murkowski to return any campaign donations she received from Holmstead's energy industry clients.
Holmstead has downplayed the role that he played in crafting Murkowski's amendment last fall. While acknowledging that he advised the senator's office on the language in the measure, he maintained that he had no role in writing the language (E&E Daily, Jan. 12).
Holmstead did not return calls for comment regarding his clients' contributions.
Industry groups have defended Holmstead's role advising Murkowski's office and point out that environmentalists are also involved in drafting legislation.
Scott Segal, an industry lobbyist at Holmstead's law firm, Bracewell & Giuliani, said Congress should be encouraged to consult with experts to deepen their understanding of complicated policy matters.
"Senator Murkowski should not be begrudged candid discussions of the Clean Air Act with legal experts any more than her opponents should be criticized for accepting drafting help and contributions from well-heeled environmental groups," Segal said.
"It's not unusual for people from all sides of the aisle to comment on legislation," said Duke spokesman Tom Williams. "To suggest it's somehow nefarious or inappropriate for one side to do it is inconsistent with reality."
Williams declined to comment specifically on Duke's ties to Holmstead and Murkowski.
The difference in this case, Slocum said, is that the lobbying firms are paid by private companies. And while that practice is common, he said, "It's rare that we have a lobbyist publicly acknowledging ... 'Hey, I played a role in this.'"
Slocum added, "There are bad things that happen all the time, and that doesn't necessarily make them right."