08/09/2012 12:56 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2012

Senate: Two Different Worlds

Recent back-to-back speeches given by Senators Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. and Lisa Murkowski, R-AK illustrate the sharp contrast in that chamber between environmental activists and their opposition.

Whitehouse delivered an eloquent sermon in behalf of environmental protection. Immediately following his impassioned oration, Murkowski took to the floor to say she shared Whitehouse's concern about widespread environmental degradation. Yet she then proceeded to assert that economic concerns were being shortchanged because of too much emphasis on environmental protection. Glossing over the apparent contradiction, Murkowski went on to inaccurately criticize the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for overstepping its role. She charged that it was imposing stringent regulations without sufficient attention to economic impacts.

Here in juxtaposition on the Senate floor were the two competing ideological visions of a world under ecological siege. Whitehouse represented the prevailing Democratic view and Murkowski reflected the dominant sentiment of the modern day Republican Party.

Whitehouse reeled off a list of alarming, well documented environmental trends, ranging from rising sea level, increasing oceanic acidity, and Arctic ice melt to dying coral reefs, contaminated fisheries, and escalating air and water temperatures. He faulted politicians for failing to combat these trends and shirking responsibility to future generations. In his view, lawmakers were complicit in allowing commerce to significantly disrupt the environment and its regenerative capacity.

Murkowski had a different take. All too often, she contended, environmental regulations were unduly strict and caused unwarranted hardship to the general public. She cited her state as a prime example of this injustice. The senator noted that because of Alaska's isolation, the daily cost of living was much higher than that of the lower 48. She complained that EPA's strengthening of air pollution regulations on shipping increased transportation costs that were passed on to Alaskan consumers and raised the price of essential goods. Murkowski contended that one size fits all was not an appropriate regulatory policy in setting anti-pollution standards.

But the EPA's mission statement directs it to give top priority to environmental concerns and only then to factor economic considerations as reasonably as possible into the rule-making.

As for Alaskans' special economic travails, Murkowski opened herself up to accusations of shedding "crocodile tears." The federal government she found so fiscally oppressive subsidizes her state more than any other in the union (on average some $20,000 a year per person, largely because of defense installations and the state's isolation). It should also be noted that Alaskans pay no state income tax or sales tax, and that each and every citizen receives an $1800 annual stipend from oil revenues.

Yes, there is an extra expense for enjoying modern amenities in extremely remote rural locations, but it is dwarfed by the penalties resulting from degradation of the air, water, and land on which all society's survival ultimately depends.