The oil and natural gas industry lost a strong advocate last Tuesday when incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) conceded Alaska’s Republican primary to Tea Party-backed candidate Joe Miller.

“With respect to natural gas, I think it’s a significant loss. Sen. Murkowski tends to focus more on natural gas issues than any other member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee,” said Martin Edwards, vice president of legislative affairs for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America. She focuses on natural gas as a “primary issue rather than a secondary issue,” he added.

Miller’s an “unknown entity” when it comes to energy issues, Edwards said. “Lisa Murkowski was a known entity.”

Edwards said he isn’t convinced that Miller, although he’s considered the odds-on favorite, will win in November. “I wouldn’t be too certain about Miller winning the general election,” he told NGI.

At the end of the Aug. 24 primary election, Murkowski trailed Miller by 1,668 votes (see NGI, Aug. 30). As the state began tallying the uncounted ballots last Tuesday, early results showed Murkowski narrowed her deficit to 1,325 votes. But the gap rose to 1,460 votes later, and then increased to 1,630 by the end of the day. Last Friday, when the count resumed, the gap widened even further to1,935 votes by 4 p.m. (EDT).

The tally on Friday showed that Murkowski was steadily losing ground. In conceding, Murkowski said she did not believe she would overtake Miller, an attorney and former federal judge.

“I don’t see a scenario where the primary will turn in my favor,” she said at her campaign headquarters in Anchorage last Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times reported. “I’m proud of the campaign. It was honest and upright.”

That may have been the reason she lost the primary. Republican strategists urged her to go on the attack against Miller during the campaign to define the issues before he could, and to spend more from her considerable war chest of $1.9 million to take on her contender. But she rejected the advice, saying that such strategies were not used in Alaska campaigns.

The surprise upset has been attributed to the fact that Miller, a conservative, was endorsed by 2008 vice president contender, former Alaska governor and Tea Party star Sarah Palin, who has been in a bitter rivalry with the Murkowski family for years. It started when then-Gov. Frank Murkowski appointed his daughter rather than Palin to fill his unexpired seat in the U.S. Senate in December 2002.

Murkowski, a moderate Republican, has been a major figure on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. As the ranking Republican, she has worked closely in bipartisan fashion with Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) to get more legislation out of their committee than any other in the Senate. This is one reason why she has been called a “partial Republican” by her colleagues in Washington and in Alaska.

Her defeat will be viewed as a major loss for the oil and gas industry, not only in Alaska but nationwide. Murkowski, 53, has supported expanded offshore oil and gas drilling, and opening part of Alaska’s Arctic Natural Wildlife Refuge to drilling. More recently, Murkowski has objected to a bill that would raise the liability cap for oil spills to $10 billion from its existing $75 million.

While Miller’s positions on energy issues are less well known, he is said to oppose as “unconstitutional” the cap-and-trade energy legislation passed by the House of Representatives in June 2009 (see NGI, June 29, 2009).

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